December 5, 2012

Patten: The county has changed a lot

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

As a McKenzie County Commissioner for the past 12 years, Dale Patten has seen the county undergo the most dramatic changes in the county’s history.
He started when the county was still in the process of rebuilding from a devastating oil bust in 1982. In those 12 years, he has seen the county and cities within the county through a lot of changes, and though he has loved it, he decided that this year would be his last.
“The biggest issue when I first started with the commission was the Management Plan and the Roadless Plan for the National Grasslands,” Patten states. “Both the new Management Plan and the Roadless Plan affected local use of the National Grasslands, so the commission worked with the state, and is still working with the state, to help resolve some of those issues.”
Patten states that along with the issues concerning the National Grasslands, the county was impacted by the oil industry, agriculture and commerce, but at a much different and slower pace.
“I can recall driving down Watford City’s Main Street at one point and counting 18 empty buildings or vacant lots,” states Patten. “When we look at what has happened in the last 12 years, there has been a significant amount of growth and need for county services.”
Around the beginning of Patten’s time on the county commission, Watford City did a needs assessment to determine what they wanted their community to look like, and according to Patten, the county participated as well.
McKenzie County was at a population of around 5,500 people and the economy, infrastructure and area communities were stable. In a lot of ways, there was no need to make any changes. But in hindsight, the investments made by the county commissioners in local communities was priceless.
“We partnered with different communities within McKenzie County and were able to accomplish things like the new Community Hall in Cartwright and the Fire Hall in Alexander,” states Patten.
Patten states that law enforcement and emergency response services were expanded, infrastructure was built and reinforced and community improvements were made.
“The county has participated with every community to help maintain infrastructure and allow them to provide the lifestyle to their residents that they desire,” states Patten. “A large number of items on the needs assessment list have taken place with the help of the county.”
Then roughly six years ago, oil prices jumped and there was an indication that change might be on the horizon.
“The first jump mainly affected Mountrail County,” states Patten. “The prices sky-rocketed to about $120 a barrel, then plummeted to around $40 a barrel.”
After the initial drop, Patten states that gradually, oil prices began to ramp up a second time.
“There was a second jump and that was the one that really impacted McKenzie County,” states Patten. “It’s been about three or four years now and it has continued to grow and impact county communities.”
In a three- or four-year time frame, Patten states that an amazing amount of expansion has taken place. The county and county communities have doubled and tripled in size. And where most cities would have 20 years to experience and respond to that type of growth, McKenzie County has had three.
“To quote Brent Sanford, when you are building a city on a prairie, it takes a lot more than when you are adding a block to a city,” states Patten. “When your community has doubled and tripled in size overnight, the resources you need to build infrastructure are very high. The infrastructure has to be built in a one- to two-year time frame, where most cities have 10 to 20 years.”
Were it not for the fact that the county commissioners have fostered a good working relationship not only with the area communities, but with the oil industry as well, the commission may not have been able to respond as well as it did to the high demand the oil boom placed on McKenzie County.
“A huge part of our success is that we have worked with local communities and the oil industry to resolve problems,” states Patten. “I have a lot of respect for my fellow commissioners. We have always had good discussions and they have always had the best interests of the county and county communities at heart. Additionally, the county employees have also worked hard to help deal with the huge amount of growth and impact McKenzie County has faced in the last few years.”
According to Patten, people across the country are looking to western North Dakota for resources and help, which provides opportunities. But change does not come without its challenges. One of the continuing challenges going forward will be being able to fill volunteer positions.
“The progress in McKenzie County has traditionally been supported by volunteers, but as the demands go up and more people are needed, it will be harder to find people to fill those roles,” states Patten.
Additionally, the county is heading into a time where some issues will keep recurring and new issues will arise more rapidly.
“It used to be that you could fix the roads and they lasted for 15 years. Now they can be shot in less than a year after they have been worked on,” Patten states.
Patten states that he became the president of McKenzie County Bank roughly a year ago, and because of the increased demands in both positions, he has not been able to give them the attention they require.
On Friday, the McKenzie County Commissioners honored Patten with a retirement party to celebrate his time with the commission. While his days as commissioner are officially over, Patten has agreed to stay on to help chair the zoning commission process until it is in place.