I sat near the back of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in New England on Wednesday morning.

Like most people in the church, I was somewhere that only a few days earlier I never thought I would have to be, honoring a man I never imagined we would lose so young.

Forty-five minutes before the funeral was set to begin, there wasn’t a seat left. I looked around and saw people crowding into the back of the church and squeezing into pews. I patted my hand on the shoulder of one of my oldest friends and said, “Look around.”

We didn’t know what to say. I wanted to smile, knowing this man had touched the lives of so many people, but couldn’t muster one.

The funeral directors wheeled his casket into the church.

The casket bearers — many of them my friends — stood there, awaiting their duties. None of them had a dry eye. We watched as a high school classmate and friend stood over her boyfriend’s casket and wept with his family. Most of us could no longer help it and joined them.

It isn’t often that you have to face your own mortality and realize the fragility of life by saying goodbye to a friend.

But, people in the New England area and many of us who grew up there felt just that when we learned that Kyle Binstock, our friend and one of the most likeable people I’ve ever known, died at just 29 years old in an accident the morning of Friday, April 11.

About 600 people — almost the same population as the town — attended Kyle’s prayer service at Ladbury Funeral Home last Tuesday. Even more came to his funeral.

The sheer amount of people who came to honor Kyle, remember his life and were there to support his family showed how great of a person he was and how much he meant to others.

There aren’t many people in this world like Kyle. He was always smiling, always had a joke or a sly comment ready to go, and you won’t find many people who ever said a bad word about him.

It always seemed that Kyle’s goal in life was to make everyone around him happy. He was the one who kept things lighthearted when it got a little too serious. He was the guy at the party who made sure everyone was having a good time, and smoothed things over between people if a fight seemed imminent.

Kyle was one of those people that you imagined growing into the goofy old man who told stories of his glory days to his kids, grandkids and anyone who would listen.

Sadly, we laid him to rest on Wednesday and pondered what people will say about us when we join him.As we walked into the post-funeral luncheon at St. Pius Verian Hall in Schefield, one of Kyle’s casket bearers cracked a movie reference joke that got a small laugh out of a large group of guys. After a few seconds, another added, “You know if Kyle was here, he’d have been the first to say that.”

We all laughed a little more heartily at that thought, knowing he was right.

Kyle wouldn’t have wanted us to cry over him. He would be happier that we were telling stories, laughing and celebrating the life he lived, no matter how short it was.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

You can visit the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It only costs $7 to get into both the Bill Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., and the Gerald Ford library in Ann Arbor, Mich.

These presidents each had their faults, yet they still have libraries to honor them and serve as historical research sites.

Somehow, Theodore Roosevelt — a man whose face is on Mount Rushmore and is considered one of our greatest leaders — is among the American presidents without a library.

The North Dakota Legislature has tasked Dickinson State University with changing that.

If our government wants to spend part of its newfound wealth on something that is actually going to benefit the state long after oil becomes an afterthought, a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is one project we should all be able to get behind.

Unlike a road or a sewer system, a library — especially a presidential library — can endure and enlighten for generations, not to mention generate an untold amount of indirect revenue for the state.

Last week, Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, spent a day with the library’s planners and said even though “it’s bigger than what it was projected to be,” he’s convinced the Legislature can get on board with the project.

It absolutely should.

The state has millions to spend and it needs to put some of that money toward more than just infrastructure for the Oil Patch, special interest group dream projects or into its proverbial mattresses.

In fact, with a project like this, it isn’t a bad idea to think even bigger.

If the Roosevelt presidential library planners can raise $3 million in private funds, the Legislature says it would grant $12 million toward its construction. But really, that is a drop in the bucket of what’s available and falls far short of what should be granted.

North Dakota has the ability to get this library built. It needs to think seriously about committing more funds to this project if it is going to move forward.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. In North Dakota, we like to be as conservative as we can with major projects. Most of the time, it works great. We don’t overdo things and, usually, less turns out to be more.

That isn’t the case when it comes to a presidential library. That’s something you don’t skimp on. In a state North Dakota’s size, a Roosevelt library would stand apart from every other attraction this state has to offer.

Legislators must go into this next session understanding exactly what a Roosevelt presidential library would mean to this state and to the generations that come long after they are gone.

After all, this wouldn’t be some public library. It would be a destination where generations of tourists, scholars and students would come from all over the world to read and learn about Roosevelt, after which they’d head out to the Badlands and visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The potential tourism dollars that could be generated by the library makes it worth more than a $12 million grant.

The Legislature also needs to understand that without North Dakota, this will never get done.

Clay Jenkinson, one of the leading authorities on Roosevelt and a humanities scholar for DSU’s Roosevelt Center, said even though 26th president hailing from New York, that state has no plans to create any sort of presidential library for him.

“If there were another one, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Jenkinson said.

That’s why North Dakota’s leaders need to make sure this gets done. If we don’t, it’s apparent no one else will.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

An image of Theodore Roosevelt from the Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center digital archive.

Dickinson could one day be home to a library for one of the most revered presidents in American history.

Dickinson State University and one of the country’s top museum planning firms, at the behest of the North Dakota Legislature, are in the early stages of designing a concept for a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library to be built in the city — likely on the university’s campus. Planners envision a facility that would be as nationally renowned as any other presidential library.

“I think this is huge for all of North Dakota,” DSU President D.C. Coston said. “A presidential library — as it’s been discussed here — has huge national and, in many cases, international impact.”

Toward the end the 2013 legislative session, the Theodore Roosevelt Center at DSU was tasked with developing a concept for building a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. The Legislature passed two bills that would grant $12 million toward the construction of the library as long as the Roosevelt Center could raise $3 million in private funds by June 30, 2015.

The library’s initial master planning phase hit its stride this week as DSU officials met with museum planners Hilferty and Associates to determine a concept for turning the Legislature’s “challenge,” as Coston called it, into reality.

“We want it to have a very serious national impact,” said Gene Hilferty, president of Hilferty and Associates. “This isn’t a local effort. This is a Theodore Roosevelt place where you come — nationally and internationally — to learn about his life, his time here in North Dakota, but more importantly, his influence on the whole American scene.”

Ideal location

Clay Jenkinson, a Theodore Roosevelt Humanities Scholar for the Roosevelt Center, is one of the foremost authorities on the 26th president. He said it’s unfortunate that Roosevelt doesn’t already have a presidential library.
Of 44 U.S. Presidents, only 21 have presidential libraries. Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, are the lone 20th century presidents without such a facility
“Here’s Roosevelt, one of the greatest presidents in American history — if anyone would have such an institution, you’d think it would be Roosevelt, and he doesn’t,” Jenkinson said.

Though he was a New Yorker by birth and in the political realm, Roosevelt is revered for his time spent as a cowboy and rancher in the Badlands near Medora.

The Roosevelt Center at DSU’s Stoxen Library has been compiling a digital library on the president since 2005.

“There’s all kinds of interesting things we’re discussing in terms of utilizing the center’s virtual library right now and incorporating that into the visitor experience in surprising and meaningful ways,” Hilferty said.

Because of the work being done at DSU, and with Medora and the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park only a half-hour drive west of Dickinson, Jenkinson said there’s nowhere better to build a Roosevelt library than in western North Dakota.

“Roosevelt said — and he meant — of all the experiences in his life, the one he had being an authentic rancher and cowboy in the Badlands of Dakota was the one he would keep if everything else were to slip away,” Jenkinson said. “This is the logical place for it.

“If it were built in New York or at Harvard, it would be another interesting thing in that part of the world. Here, it’ll be one of the most amazing things in this part of the world.”

What would it be?

Planning a presidential library takes time, said Tim Pfaff, a consultant for Hilferty.
“You want to think about who it’s for and what it’s about,” he said.

Planners believe a Roosevelt presidential library would have a wide audience and attract students of all ages, researchers from around the world and tourists visiting the national park and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. They also want it to serve as a type of community center for Dickinson and western North Dakota.

With that in mind, Hilferty designed three concept libraries.

The first, titled, “On the Frontier” would encompass 2⅓ acres and make the digital library the centerpiece of the experience and use virtual exhibits. The second conception, “Roosevelt’s America” would be geared toward educators, students and North Dakotans. The third, “Becoming Roosevelt” would emphasize how North Dakota served as a turning point in his life and would recreate the Elkhorn Ranch. The second and third would both be about 3⅓ acres.

An open forum to discuss visions for the library was held Monday night, but only about 10 people attended. The Monday morning blizzard was mostly to blame, Coston said.

“We were thrilled to have that many people on a night like that,” he said with a laugh.
Coston added there’s so much more planning to be done that Hilferty will return to Dickinson after “honing down on a concept,” and more public discussions will be scheduled.

Economic sustainability and site planning — including interpretive plans and exhibit concepts — will take place in the coming months with recommendations expected to be presented by July.

“This, like any big endeavor, is a multi-stage process,” Hilferty said

‘We can’t fail’

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, is confident that planning for the library is “on the right track” and that the Theodore Roosevelt Center will have a strong conceptual design to present to the Legislature during the 2015 session.

Wardner feels the proposed library is something the Legislature will support and believes it should be viewed in the same light as the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

“We’re taking a look at the history of a president that spent time in North Dakota,” he said. “There are Teddy Roosevelt fans all over the world and they do not have a place they can go.”

There’s no projected completion date or site picked out for the library.

“At this point, it depends on how the thing continues to develop,” Coston said.

Regardless of what the library’s concept becomes or how long it takes to become a reality, planners said they are confident their project will succeed, and both private and state funding will come together.

“We can’t fail,” Jenkinson said. “We have to step up and make this succeed.”

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Two unidentified men work to get a vehicle out of the snow-covered Econofoods parking lot in north Dickinson after it got stuck Monday morning. Authorities said they responded to multiple accidents and cars stuck in snow following the blizzard that hit Sunday night and Monday morning.

March went out like a lion Monday in southwest North Dakota.

An early spring blizzard brought life to a crawl much of the day after the area was slammed with nearly a foot of heavy, wet snow and high winds late Sunday night and Monday morning. The snow fell on top of slush and icy roads created by Sunday afternoon rainfall and was later kicked up by wind gusts before settling down early in the afternoon.
The storm caused multiple accidents and calls for stuck vehicles, authorities said.

One Oklahoma man found himself at the mercy of Mother Nature as he got stuck trying to exit the Runnings parking lot with a heavy duty pickup hauling a goose-neck trailer.

“This is my worst nightmare,” said Tam Nguyen, the owner of Jan and Tam Trucking of Muskogee, Okla., as he waited for police help to come. He was on his way to Minot.

All area schools were canceled, and nearly all public entities and multiple businesses closed in Dickinson and the surrounding communities. Some businesses reopened later in the day, but road conditions in town made travel difficult without the help of a four-wheel drive vehicle.

A no-travel advisory that had been in place for about 14 hours was lifted around noon, but plows planned to work late into the day to remove the snow.

Dickinson Police Sgt. Pete Selle said city employees operating the heavy snow-moving equipment can only work 14 hours straight before a required break.

“City crews are going to be out at 4 a.m. in the morning to start snow removal,” Selle said. “They don’t expect to be complete with snow removal operations in the city of Dickinson until around noon on Tuesday.”

Until then, Selle said, Dickinson police are calling for no unnecessary travel within the city limits.

Between 4 a.m. and noon Monday — the worse part of the storm — Dickinson police performed 14 motorist assists, helping individuals whose cars wouldn’t start, got stuck or were otherwise affected by the weather.

“Obviously the storm started to get pretty bad and streets are in pretty rough condition,” Sgt. Kylan Klauzer said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of accidents thankfully, knock on wood.”

Authorities outside of Dickinson stressed only essential travel throughout the day as they encountered a handful of single- and multiple-vehicle accidents as well as numerous vehicles stuck in snow.

“It’s the wide gamut of crashes,” said Sgt. Chris Messer of the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

Michael Mathews, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said Monday that Dickinson received as much as 10 inches of snow since Sunday night with Rhame, the far southwest corner of the state, reporting 11 inches and Glen Ullin reporting 11½ inches.

The blizzard warning expired for the southwest portion of the state at 3 p.m. Monday as skies cleared and temperatures improved, leading to a new set of problems.
“I’m sure with snow melting, getting some ruts in it and then freezing again tonight, it’s going to cause a new set of problems for people — especially with two-wheel drive vehicles,” Selle said Monday afternoon.

Billings County Sheriff Deputy Pat Rummel said plows began working in the early morning hours to clear off Interstate 94 and other roads in his county, but it was “pretty thick in some spots.”

He estimated that, as of 8 a.m., the Medora area got 6 to 8 inches of snow between Sunday night and Monday morning.

“Last night, it started off pretty slushy and there’s probably 4 to 5 inches of slush — and now with all the snow on top of it,” Rummel said on Monday morning. “Underneath, it’s glare ice. Once they get the snow removed off of it, it’ll be quite icy.”

Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew said she was worried about people on the roads, but also ranchers in the midst of calving season. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association issued an advisory Sunday for livestock producers, telling them to be wary of the storm in the wake of the October 2013 blizzard that killed thousands of cattle in western South Dakota and southwest North Dakota.

The only North Dakota counties not included in the blizzard warning were in the northwest and north central part of the state.

On Monday afternoon, the North Dakota Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol closed Interstate 94 from Fargo to Bismarck and Interstate 29 from Fargo to the Canadian border. U.S. Highway 2 also was closed from Devils Lake to Grand Forks, an NDDOT news release said. The closures were due to zero visibility and snow-covered roads causing hazardous driving conditions.

Though it wasn’t what he wanted out of his Monday, the storm didn’t bother lifelong Dickinson resident Josh Steckler. He even drove to work in the morning without realizing he didn’t have to be there until noon.

“It’s usual — you kind of expect it,” Steckler said as he took a break from shoveling his sidewalk Monday morning. “Even into May.”

Press reporter Katherine Lymn and other Forum News Service reporters contributed to this story.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Scranton Equity Exchange General Manager Roger Goodfellow, who retires in April, stands in front of the elevator.

SCRANTON — Mike Wedwick chuckles when asked about what this small town would be like without the Scranton Equity Exchange.

“It’d be just like Bucyrus. How about Gascoyne?” said Mike Wedwick, the Equity’s grain manager, evoking a similar chuckle from general manager Roger Goodfellow.

Wedwick’s assumption of Scranton turning into a ghost town may not be far off — at least not in the eyes of the Equity’s employees.

“It’s basically the community,” said Kim Hodell, the Equity’s truck shop manager and an employee of 32 years.

Scranton was destined to “fall off the map” after the coal mine east of town closed in the late ’90s, said Ryan Schumacher, the cooperative’s assistant manager for fertilizer and chemical sales.

“The equity picked up the slack,” said Schumacher, a Scranton High School graduate. “It means a lot to Scranton because of the jobs generated. It gives people a reason to come to town. Without the Equity, there isn’t much left on Main Street.”

100 years 

The Equity has been a staple in the community for a century.

The cooperative that eventually became the Scranton Equity Exchange was formed 100 years ago this week. It still has the minutes from its first meeting on April 4, 1914, when it formed as “The Scranton Local.”

Today, the producer-owned cooperative is the engine driving the small agriculture-based community of less than 300 people.

Not only is it an elevator with a capacity for 2.3 million bushels of grain — with plans for expansion in the near future — it maintains several other businesses that don’t generate much, if any, revenue, all in an effort to keep Scranton from becoming another North Dakota ghost town.

The Equity operates a commercial feed mill, a fertilizer plant, an agronomy center, and a gas station with a hardware store inside — businesses essential to its wide-ranging and rural consumer base’s farming and ranching needs.

It also runs the town’s grocery store, lumber yard, auto parts store and truck repair shop, as well as the Frontier Travel Center truck stop in Bowman and a feed supply store in Buffalo, S.D.

Some of the Equity’s businesses that don’t generate revenue, “are supported by those that do,” Wedwick said.

Goodfellow, who has been with the Equity for 18 years and plans to retire in April, said the cooperative’s willingness to take on businesses that may not make money in an effort to keep residents employed and people coming to town has made a difference to the community.

“You see these small towns and eventually they lose their grocery store, then they lose (other businesses),” Goodfellow said. “In this case, there’s a large company that’s owned by the farmers that wants those businesses retained, so they have provided those businesses, and they’ve done it by taking profits out of the larger segments and making sure these businesses are available. So you come through Scranton and you see an awful lot of businesses — like the parts store or grocery store — that normally would have closed their doors and left years ago.”

Karen Goodfellow, Roger’s daughter-in-law, works for the grocery store and said it’s a necessity for the town, especially Scranton’s elderly who can’t go too far outside of town.

“Without the grocery store, your town starts dying,” she said. “Everyone will start going to a different town to get their groceries. So, for us to have the grocery store, it’s very important.”

Similar co-ops in southwest North Dakota came under the CHS, Inc., umbrella in the past two decades. Other independent cooperatives have been scooped up throughout the years.

Wedwick said the Equity’s ability to maintain its independence has allowed it to keep its businesses running.

“If we weren’t a locally owned, independent co-op, we probably wouldn’t have some of those,” Wedwick said. “That’s a huge thing to our customers, that we continue to support those things for customers and the community.”

Patrons and employees

The Scranton Equity’s cooperative has nearly 1,500 members. About 700 of them have acquired enough stock to vote on business matters.

“They earn stock as they do business,” Goodfellow said.

According to its website, the Equity is one of the three largest independent farmer-owned cooperatives in North Dakota. Its sales range between $70-110 million a year.

Nearly 100 employees work for Equity businesses in Scranton, Bowman and Buffalo, including about 60 in Scranton — and most of them are area natives.

“A lot of the people that deal here like dealing with some guys who are independent instead of some big corporation,” Goodfellow said.

The employees like working there, too.

Brent Sanford has been with the Equity a decade this month. He works in the feed department but has helped with different jobs throughout the cooperative.

“It’s been fun to watch the company grow,” he said. “There’s been a lot of changes.”

Hodell, who plans to retire soon, said he has always had good people to work with.
“I’d recommend it to anybody,” he said. “… The equity does a real good job of taking care of the patrons.”

Though the Equity is a big part of Scranton, the community isn’t exactly thriving on its youth.

Cleve Teske, the assistant grain manager, said an aging population means an aging employee base.

“We don’t have a whole lot of young folks, but it’s getting a little better,” he said. “Especially in the last few years when the economy has really been good in ag. We’re seeing a few more people real happy to be at home and working.”

Wedwick said the Equity must face retaining its best employees and hiring new ones over the coming years as it loses workers who have three or more decades of experience, including some of its managers.

“The biggest challenges are going to be trying to continue that and trying to replace people that had lots of years,” Wedwick said. “I don’t think our challenges, as a cooperative, are any different than anybody else’s. Everybody is dealing with the same pains.”

Embracing change

Throughout the years, almost everything about the Equity has changed.

“You almost want to say the only thing that hasn’t is the dirt itself,” Wedwick said.
Though some things are still the same — Sanford demonstrated the feed plant’s old-school bagging system and the elevators and feed plant operate much the same as they always have — others often change.

Like almost everything else in agriculture, advancing technology has meant constant updates in the way the Equity operates, from the equipment it buys to the advice it gives farmers and ranchers.

Goodfellow said the Equity recently hired two young agronomists to do field work with farmers, giving tips about what they should plant, and what chemicals and fertilizer they should be putting on their crops.

“You look at what your customers out there are wanting and if you want to stay in business, you provide those services or someone has to do it for you,” Goodfellow said.
Keeping employees educated about the latest agriculture trends and technology is key to the Equity’s success. Wedwick said embracing change means listening to individual managers, employees and customers.

“If you didn’t have the support of either/or, it would be much more difficult to keep trying to push boundaries because you know you’ve got the support,” Wedwick said.

As it turns 100 years old, the Equity has no concrete plans for a celebration or moment to mark its formation.

Instead, Friday — its 100th birthday — will be just another day in the life of an independent ag cooperative that continues to breathe life into its quiet, yet stable, small town.

“It’s the lifeblood of the community,” Teske said.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

The other day, there was a three-car accident on State Avenue next to Dickinson High School.

I don’t remember exactly what day it was, but does that really matter? This happens far too often for it to be news.

Is it time for accidents like this to be a thing of the past?

A little crowdsourcing says it is.

After thinking about that accident and talking with a couple friends about it, I posted a question on Facebook about the dangerousness of the Dickinson High parking lot entrance/exit along State Avenue. I asked what could be done about this spot as heavy traffic along one of the city’s busiest street becomes a bigger issue as Dickinson grows to the west and the school’s enrollment increases.

My post had 43 likes in a span of 24 hours. In Facebook terms, that’s a lot.

The comments I received were pretty one-sided in that people agreed something should be done about the issue that, at the very least, causes traffic snarls for those traveling north between Fairway Street and Empire Road every day from about 3:35-4 p.m. when about 800 kids are aching to get out of that parking lot and off school grounds.

In a town with increasingly difficult traffic situations, few compare to this section of road at that time of day.

State Avenue was the west edge of town when the high school opened in 1968. There wasn’t much to the north either. Naturally, Dickinson has expanded around the school. Our recent population explosion and the growth of housing, recreation, health care and, soon, retail centers to the west of the school have only exacerbates the traffic situation near the school.

So what can the city and the school do?

Completely close the lane and direct all traffic from the main high school parking lot toward Empire Road? Should they not allow cars to exit onto State Avenue or maybe make it a right-turn in, right-turn out lanes, creating two distinct lanes of traffic that would require the installation of a median? Or does the city have to put traffic lights at the intersections of Empire Road and Fairway Street to help alleviate congestion?

City Administrator Shawn Kessel said it could be a combination of any of the above.

Especially, he said, as the new St. Joseph’s Hospital and the eventual construction of the Dickinson Hills Shopping Center to the west of the school stand to cause even greater traffic issues at those intersections and at the high school.

“We anticipate that it’s going to justify the use of signals at that location,” Kessel said, adding a study planned for this summer could show a necessity for installing signals.
However, that kind of work doesn’t happen overnight.

These are things decided at Dickinson City Commission and Dickinson Public School board meetings.

Until some sort of change happens, however, I have a few words of advice for our teenage drivers.

First, stay off the cellphone when you’re leaving the parking lot. And I mean texting and calling. You just spent all day with your buddies. Your girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t need to see your cute Instagram selfie right this second. And there’s no way you’re in that big of a rush to talk to mom and dad, so don’t blame it on that.

Not to mention, there are more semi trucks traveling on State Avenue these days.

I’d hate to write a story that one of you tried to shoot the gap to get ahead of an oncoming car and forgot about one of those semis coming from the other direction.

Keep in mind, I — just like every other adult, your parents and teachers included — was a teenager once too, and some of us learned the hard way that those driver’s education instructors knew what they were talking about after all.

If nothing else, just be cautious and courteous when you’re trying to get out of the parking lot. I know it can be frustrating sitting there and waiting for a spot to get on the street, but there’s no need to make things worse for everyone by taking a big chance and causing an accident.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

The way things are shaping up, western North Dakota’s legislative elections are going to be one-horse races.

There is a little more than two weeks remaining until the April 7 filing deadline for party candidacy in the 2014 election and the Democrat-NPL party hasn’t had a single person announce their candidacy in western North Dakota’s five legislative districts — including the three that encompass much of The Dickinson Press’ coverage area.

If for nothing else than the sake of democracy, North Dakota Democrat’s need to get candidates lined up in the west and get them on the campaign trail.

In the last legislative session, there was a lot of complaining from Democrats about the state Legislature’s “Republican supermajority” and how their party had little to no voice in matters. So far, very few in the state are even attempting to become that voice. And not a single one in our area.

Now, I don’t believe the Democrats have given up on western North Dakota. But I do think they understand how much of a battle it is to get quality, competitive candidates here.

Of the politically active Democrats I speak to on a regular basis, most are confident they’ll be able to find candidates able to challenge Republican incumbents. The trouble is, being a Democrat in western North Dakota these days is like being a Republican in San Francisco. You can run a great campaign, say and do all the right things, have great ideas and North Dakotan ideals, and you’re still going to be sledding uphill solely because of the popular mindset.

It doesn’t help North Dakota Democrats — especially those on the western edge — that their national leaders are far removed from the moderate, “non-partisan” mentality their party was built on within the state, and so vocally oppose almost everything that has made the Oil Patch the economic envy of the nation.

In the 2012 legislative election, incumbent Democrat Shirley Meyer lost her District 36 seat in the House of Representatives by less than 2 percent. Republicans Mike Schatz and Alan Fehr were elected.

I can’t help but think it’s because Meyer had a “D” next to her name on the ballot. She had served her district just fine in the Legislature. She had six sessions of experience under her belt, including the previous four, and sponsored bills that impacted her constituency.

There’s plenty of legislators who have done a lot less in their time in office.

Chad Oban, the executive director of the state’s Democrat-NPL party, told The Press on Friday that he doesn’t think people will care in November who announced their candidacy when. But it surely doesn’t help his party that voters are beginning to hear that Democrats are still searching for candidates while the Republicans are ready to go with mostly incumbents.

But who? And if they’re out there, what’s the sense in keeping it a secret until after the party’s state convention next weekend or the filing deadline? This is hurting North Dakota Democrats in a part of the state where they can’t afford it.

The Democrats have good people out there who could be assets to the state’s Legislature and there are people in western North Dakota who want a bipartisan mix of local representatives.

So, who will anyone step to the plate?

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Pharmacist Larry Larsen, right, works with his daughter and pharmacist Jenna Wahlstrom on Feb. 13 at their store, Larsen Service Drug on Main Street in Watford City.

WATFORD CITY — Larry and Debbie Larsen know the benefits and pitfalls of owning a small business in an Oil Patch boomtown.

Despite being flush with new clients and busier than ever, Larry said keeping up can be “a struggle.”

“A lot of times, we just call it controlled chaos,” he said.

Larsen Service Drug is an institution in Watford City, the McKenzie County boomtown that has seen its population quadruple in the past four years primarily because of the surrounding oil and gas exploration.

The Larsens’ business has been in the family since John Larsen, Larry’s dad, first opened the doors 62 years ago. They even have the soda fountain from the original store before it expanded and took over the former clinic space next door.

The family has seen more than one oil boom come and go. This one, Debbie said, came after slower economic times.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Larry said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of areas of the country that would kill to have a business environment like we had — the unemployment and everything else. But, it’s a two-edged sword. We do have the boom, but in a lot of ways, it’s just not all gravy.”

Debbie, a pharmacy technician and a past president of the Watford City Chamber of Commerce, said keeping employees has been one of the drug store’s most difficult issues. She said the store had three longtime employees preparing for retirement right as the oil boom began to take hold at the beginning of the decade.

“That just happened to coincide where it was not only hard to hire a warm body, it was hard to hire anybody with the skills you really needed,” Debbie said. “That proved to be a little challenging. The nature of the workforce right now, they’re not really settled. They tend to come and go so quickly. That’s probably been our biggest challenge with staffing. I think we’ve hired good people, but they aren’t always here to stay. Maybe we thought they were, but they ended up leaving.”

The Larsens did recently get some good help in the form of a familiar face: Larry and Debbie’s daughter, Jenna Wahlstrom.

Wahlstrom is a pharmacist for Larsen Service Drug, so it appears that the business will stay safely in the family for years to come.

“It’s exciting, a little daunting,” Wahlstrom said with a laugh. “It’s big shoes to fill. My grandpa and my dad have created such a wonderful place to work and be. They’re such great bosses.”

However, because she is only in her first year with the business, Wahlstrom said taking over when her dad decides to retire is something that’s quite a ways down the road.
“Someday, that may be something I would step up to,” Wahlstrom said. “I’m wanting to maybe have a family and do some things first.”

Wahlstrom even brought along one of her best friends from pharmacy school, Kelsey Linseth, to work alongside her family. Linseth met her husband in Watford City at Wahlstrom’s wedding.

The friends don’t work together often though. One is usually at the Watford City store while the other operates the Larsens’ New Town drug store that was purchased a few years ago.

Debbie said it left a hole in the New Town community, the population center of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, when its drug store didn’t have a pharmacist.
“We were really happy we were able to provide the service that was needed once they didn’t have it,” Wahlstrom said.

In both locations, Debbie said, she has encountered newcomers who are shocked to have an interaction with the actual pharmacist.

Unlike in some states, the North Dakota Pharmacy Ownership Law of 1963 states that only pharmacies majority owned by a licensed pharmacist or group of pharmacists can operate in the state.

“A lot of these people come from other states and they’re not used to community pharmacies, for the most part,” Debbie said. “That’s been kind of an education that we’ve taken on with new people. They come in and they’re like, ‘I can’t find a pharmacy in a Walmart anywhere.’ … They’re just blown away that they get to talk to the pharmacist. They get to have service. We can fill their prescriptions in minutes.

“That’s been fun for us, to have them experience what a pharmacy should be.”

Watford City is expanding at a rapid pace, driving small businesses like the Larsens’ drug store. The city is expected to hit 10,000 permanent residents soon — the 2010 census counted 1,744 people — and is predicted to grow even larger than that.

Wahlstrom said the oil boom has made for a bittersweet homecoming.

“When I was growing up, it was a much slower pace in Watford, so it’s been a big change,” she said. “But it’s good for business.”

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Scranton native Kat Perkins got the leadoff spot and a lengthy introduction segment on Monday night’s episode of NBC reality singing show ”The Voice.”

It was for a good reason, too.

Perkins sang “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac and got three of four coaches to turn their chairs. Country star Blake Shelton was, ironically, the lone holdout. Perkins began her career in country music before turning to the rock genre.

The 33-year-old singer’s love of rock influenced her choice. She picked Levine, the lead singer of rock band Maroon 5, to be her coach.

Perkins said, “This is crazy” while making her choice before picking Levine.

Levine, Usher and Shakira praised Perkins’ performance.

“The end of your performance, that note, that seared the entire audience,” Levine said.

Usher said that while he isn’t much of a rocker, he hoped to add to her talent.

“I could only imagine how incredible of a performer you could be with the type of encouragement and help to be great,” Usher said.

Shakira, a Grammy-winning Latin pop singer,  all but begged Perkins to choose her.

“I want you desperately,” Shakira said. “… I’d like for you to be the architect of your own destiny.”

After leaving the stage, host Carson Daly asked Perkins why she picked Levine.

“His pitch. He was so determined to get the rocker chick,” Perkins said.

Perkins’ rendition of “Gold Dust Woman” can be purchased on iTunes.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Carol and Steve LaFramboise stand behind the bar at The B.A.R. in New England on Feb. 9. The owner of The B.A. bowling alley and restaurant, Steve partnered with Randy Schwartz and several volunteers to open the new business in the town’s old lumber yard building.

NEW ENGLAND — Steve LaFramboise had a nice little thing going inside his bowling alley. He had turned a small corner section of The B.A. restaurant into a bar and lounge area where bowlers could gather.

It turned into the place to go in New England for those wanting to socialize while enjoying an adult beverage.

But, LaFramboise said, it was never anything more than a hole in the wall. In fact, he acknowledges, it wasn’t even much of a bar.

“No matter how big or small we were, they still came,” he said, “but we weren’t able to accommodate them by any means. People said it was too bright, it wasn’t a bar atmosphere. So, we were starting to lose that umph.”

When Randy Schwartz approached LaFramboise about opening a new bar directly across the street from The B.A. in the old New England Lumber building he owned, LaFramboise jumped at the chance.

After countless hours of volunteer work, The B.A.R. opened in early December.
“It turned out way nicer than I ever expected,” said Schwartz, president of New England-based Edward H. Schwartz Construction, Inc. “They did way more work than I ever expected. The place has absolutely got some charm to it.”

Schwartz said he’s heard from many out-of-towners who feel The B.A.R. would fare well in a bigger city.

The B.A.R. — a simplistic take on the business and an obvious offshoot of the bowling alley’s name — kept much of the lumber building’s original wood interior.

It’s cozy — bright and filled with natural light during the day with a subdued “bar-like” feel at night. The floorplan is open. There’s a pool table, dart machines and, of course, a hunting video game in the corner. LaFramboise said several more updates are still coming.

Schwartz paid for an update to the furnace and plumbing, but was hesitant about LaFramboise and volunteers’ wishes of saving some parts of the hardwood interior, such as the floors.

The bar was built by local carpenter and handyman Gary Burkhardsmeier and John Kathrein put several hours into the bar, LaFramboise said. Kathrein now bartends there part-time.

The nail bins are still there but now have benches on top of them that serve as a place to sit or place a drink when shooting pool.

“I was probably the anchor dragging them down more than anything when they were working on it,” Schwartz said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You guys are nuts for trying to refinish this floor. If I were you, I’d clean it up … and go with it.’ They said, ‘No, we’re going to sand it up and refinish it.’

“Now they’ve got this beautiful floor in there. People pay big bucks to have that distressed wood look. They got it with an afternoon of work on a Sunday.”

A special aspect for the bar’s patrons has been “Branding Night,” which LaFramboise said he wants to hold once a month.

The event is a fundraiser for the New England Fire Department where ranchers pay $250 — with $200 going directly to the fire department — to bring in their brands and have them burnt onto a piece of wood that will hang throughout the bar. Several area ranchers have already done it.

“The Fire Department bartends that night and all the money goes to them,” LaFramboise said. “The first night we did it, we raised $4,000.”

The B.A.R. also hosts poker league every Monday and hopes to get involved in rotating darts and pool leagues with bars in neighboring cities.

LaFramboise also wants to host special events, such as the Nate Schatz Ironman Fundraiser that is scheduled for March 22 at The B.A. and The B.A.R.

The first of its kind, the competition will feature five-person teams bowling, throwing darts, shooting pool and singing karaoke with the proceeds going to Schatz, a New England native and son of former high school football coach Mike Schatz who was severely injured in a car accident last October.

“This is the town’s bar,” LaFramboise said. “We built it for the town and we give back to the town when we can.”

LaFramboise added that he’d like to see retirees — a sizeable segment of the town’s population — using The B.A.R. as a coffee and cards hangout in the morning and afternoon hours before the drinking crowd arrives.

“I would have no problem with that,” he said.

New England was once home to four bars — three of them on Main Street. Now, with an influx of population because of the nearby Bakken oil boom, LaFramboise feels the town and surrounding area has the population to handle the two bars it now has.

“Honestly, there’s enough business for two bars in this town,” he said.

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Like a lot of other people in southwest North Dakota, I’m a Lutheran who is friends with a lot of Catholics.

For me, it goes back to high school when I met a handful of Trinity kids and found that, despite what us small-towners had heard, they weren’t the arrogant “big city” kids some thought they were. A few of those guys have become lifelong friends and, through them, I’ve met many other great friends and people along the way.

One of those guys woke me up Monday with a text message while I was laying in a hotel bed on vacation. He asked if I had heard about the fire at Trinity High School. He didn’t have many details but knew school was canceled. Wondering just how serious it was, we theorized it was something small — maybe an electrical fire — that could probably be dealt with. He had driven by and said the outside of the building looked OK.

So, I assigned the story to one of our reporters and got back to the last day of my vacation.

We all soon learned the fire wasn’t some little disturbance. It has become a tragedy for everyone connected to the school — life-altering for some, including several teachers who have spent their entire careers there — made worse when the community learned the person allegedly responsible for the blaze that left the building unusable was the school’s first-year principal, Thomas Sander.

Less than a week after the fire, Trinity has rallied in fine form.

They’ve received some outstanding help from Dickinson Public Schools and Dickinson State University, who should both be commended. The public school district especially has stepped up and, despite a minority of detractors, did the right thing by clearing what little space they could in their already overcrowded buildings simply so Trinity students could have a normal environment for classes. Beginning Monday, Trinity’s band will begin rehearsing at DSU.

But as the kids go back to class, more details will certainly emerge about the fire. Including, “Why?” Why did this happen? Why, if Sander is indeed guilty of arson, did he start a fire knowing full well that one of the school’s teachers lived in the building?

Furthermore, some parents have many questions for the Dickinson Catholic Schools Board of Education and believe they should be allowed to have more involvement in what happens as the school rebuilds and cleans up. The board should listen to them and allow the parents to have an organized voice.

But there’s still a lot of time to answer questions. In fact, school leaders have acknowledged they don’t know the whole story yet. Answers don’t always come immediately in a situation like this.

In the end, Trinity will persevere. As a school with religious foundations, they’re built for this. They won’t let the actions of one person destroy something generations have built over five decades.

As the red T-shirts you’ll undoubtedly see Monday night at the Region 7 girls basketball tournament say, they are “Titan Strong.”

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

A 4 p.m. traffic snarl along Highway 85 in south Watford City like this one on Feb. 13 is a typical sight in the town that went from 1,744 to more than 7,500 since 2010.

WATFORD CITY — There are days, Brent Sanford said, when he struggles to wrap his head around everything happening in his hometown.

Ten years ago, Sanford returned to Watford City to take over his family’s automotive dealership. He soon found himself on the city council and was elected mayor in 2010 — right as oil and gas exploration in the Bakken shale formation was beginning to put a stranglehold on northwest North Dakota communities.

Today, Sanford and other Watford City leaders are facing challenges few small towns in America ever have to endure. All the while, he said, they’re trying to keep their once-quiet community from becoming just another “dirty oil town.”

The goal, Sanford and other city leaders said, is to keep pace with growth that has gripped Watford City because of the unprecedented oil boom — it enters the construction season with $240 million in infrastructure needs, ranging from streets to schools — while maintaining its appeal as a progressive and welcoming home where people want to put down roots.

But that is more challenging than anyone could have ever imagined.

“Everything is in flux, basically,” Sanford said.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford

Quadrupled population

In a matter of four years, Watford City’s population has more than quadrupled.

It went from having 1,744 people during the 2010 census — a figure almost everyone here knows by heart — to an estimated 7,500 residents, give or take a thousand in any given month. City leaders expect at least 10,000 people, if not many more, to be living here by summer because of the onslaught of construction and seasonal oilfield work.

Watford City is preparing for a permanent population of at least 17,000 based on estimates provided by the state Department of Mineral Resources and North Dakota State University demographic researchers. But really, Sanford said, no one has any idea where the city’s population is really heading.

“I’ve heard ridiculous estimates from people from Texas that saw some of those cities grow that are too ridiculous to mention,” Sanford said, referring to oil boom towns that, like Watford City, exploded in size after the discovery of sustainable oil extraction.
One way or another, Watford City and McKenzie County are in the midst of what Sanford called “a crisis.”

Watford City is the seat of McKenzie County, which has become the heart of North Dakota oil production. In January, 40 percent of drilling permits issued in the state were in the county. It produced more than 8 million barrels of oil in December, according to the state’s Department of Mineral Resources. The agency estimated as much as 15 million barrels of oil a month could be produced in the county by 2017.

“It’s just the epicenter up here,” McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder said. “So part of the challenge right now is to make sure we recognize the opportunity and make sure we don’t get overwhelmed by the challenges.”

McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder

Infrastructure needs

Some challenges include building a new school and a new hospital, improving sewer and water, and helping private developers by providing adequate infrastructure.

The city will vote March 11 on a $27 million bond referendum to finance a new $50 million high school building project. Student enrollment has doubled since 2010 and buildings, which are in fine shape, are simply running out of space.

The city has about $240 million in infrastructure needs, Sanford said. It is developing a stretch of land around the town “basically the size of Minot” to keep up with the growth.

There is a plan to build two new water towers and a $17 million sewage treatment plant to replace old lagoons that are environmentally unsound based on the current population. Growth is outpacing street construction to the point where developers have to do their own off-site improvements, including building their own streets.

But that’s just the start.

McKenzie County and Watford City are looking to the state to help expand nearly every entity of their overworked local government.

A $2 million overhaul to city hall is nearly complete, but the new offices are already overflowing. Across the street, there’s a $1 million fire hall overhaul project. The city will need more police officers — it’s searching for a new police chief, too — and the county could use more sheriff’s deputies. The McKenzie County Courthouse is being renovated and is operating out of what residents are calling the “Courthouse man camp,” at the county fairgrounds on the city’s east edge.

“We would like to be able to stay ahead of the curve instead of getting run over and trampled before we have to keep begging and begging to get the right funding,” Sanford said.

Looking to the Legislature

In the last legislative session, Watford City was awarded $10 million in oil-impact grants after requesting $190 million.

In 2012, an estimated $1.17 billion in annual gross production and extraction tax was generated from McKenzie County oil wells. The county’s annual return is about $80 million, according to the North Dakota State Treasurer’s office. That’s less than 7 percent allocated toward the county, for its schools, cities and townships.

“It’s just not going to where it’s supposed to go,” said Rep. David Drovdal, R-Arnegard, who graduated from Watford City High School and is a lifelong McKenzie County resident.

Oil production in the area isn’t slowing down either. McKenzie County had 68 of North Dakota’s 187 active drilling rigs at the end of the third week of February. Watford City also services southwest Mountrail County, and northern Billings and Dunn counties — all oil-production hotbeds.

Sanford and McKenzie County School District Superintendent Steve Holen are involved with the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties, which has been asking for a special legislative session this summer. Last Monday, the North Dakota Legislature’s Democrat-NPL leaders called for a special session in May to address needs and allocate emergency funding to Oil Patch communities.

“We’re sticking our fingers in the dike, holding back the water, with $1 million and $2 million projects,” Sanford said. “… We’ve just got this monumental price tag that just blows your doors off. How are we going to come up with 240 million bucks?”

Drovdal said he believes a special session would be good for the Oil Patch. His district is the largest in the state, encompassing six of the western-most counties in North Dakota and part of Dunn County, all but one of which have been impacted by the oil boom.

“There’s a tremendous need out there that’s probably understood by a lot of the legislators,” Drovdal said. “But what it comes down to is divvying up the money. Every town and every city and every college seems to have their specific interest that they want to put first. With the lack of legislators in western North Dakota, it’s sometimes tough to keep it from being the last thing that’s passed. That’s kind of what happened last time.”

McKenzie County Schools Superintendent Steve Holen

Enrollment boom

If there is one place where Watford City wants to see more money flow, it’s into the county’s school system. The population boom has hit the McKenzie County School District as hard as any entity in the area.

Holen said if enrollment trends continue, Watford City will soon run out of space and be forced to use multiple portable classrooms.

The district’s biggest classes are kindergarten and first grade with more than 110 kids in each. Its K-5 enrollment of 567 is bigger than the entire district was in 2010.

Residents of the school district will vote next week on a $27 million bond referendum. The goal is to build a $50 million high school to house grades 7-12.

“It’s kind of just beginning and I think that’s what this county and area understand,” Holen said. “We’re still in the second inning of a long game.”

The proposed new 162,000 square-foot high school would be built on the northeast side of town and have a capacity for 800 students. Holen said it “matches where we’re going with our planning, with what we think the city’s growth is doing, with what we see our growth doing and what we’ve seen so far.”

If a new high school is built, grades four through sixth would be moved to the current high school. Kindergarten through third grade would stay in the elementary school expansion that was completed last fall for grades K-6 and is already overflowing.

When Holen came to Watford City in 2005, he said the school district was facing the question of whether it should make the current high school a K-12 building because of declining enrollment.

“It just so quickly changed,” he said. “Nobody really saw this coming.”

If the bond referendum passes, Watford City will still need about $23 million to finance the construction of the school. Some leaders would like to ask the state for help, but its doubtful that would come in any other form than grant money or low- or no-interest loans.
“As far as the school, it’s tough to appropriate for any one district because then pretty soon you’re going to end up doing it for all the districts throughout the state,” Drovdal said.

In addition to a new school, city officials are proposing a $50 million on-campus events center for high school activities and city functions that would house a basketball arena, two hockey rinks and a competition swimming pool. Football, baseball and softball fields are also in the new campus plans but are not set in stone.

Though an expensive event center seems like a bit of a stretch, at its current pace Watford City is set to become a Class A school by the end of the decade, putting it in the same division as Dickinson, Williston, Bismarck and Minot.

“The ability to retain and attract the workers that are needed for this thing for the next 50 years is not going to be there if we don’t have the right-sized facilities,” Sanford said.

Creating a community

More and more each day, Watford City’s growth appears to be for real.

City Auditor Peni Peterson said she is beginning to see signs that the city is going beyond being one big man camp as families begin to make it their new home.

“A lot of the families that are moving here, that are truly want to live here — not just sit here a spell, make some money, get the kids in school and then we’re ditching,” Peterson said. “The ones that are truly wanting to be residents of Watford City, they’re jumping right in. Before, when it kind of first happened, you didn’t really see the family part of it. It was a lot of the men. They needed a place to eat and a place to sleep. Now you go to these groups and there’s a new mom with her kids and she’s ready to volunteer. We are getting some of that support now because they are moving here.”

Sandy Updegrave is one of those people. The Oregon native and her husband moved to Watford City in 2012, and brought their daughter and son-in-law. They came looking for work and a change of scenery. Updegrave said they found a community.

They still live in the RV they came to North Dakota in, but the family is doing well. Updegrave is the manager of Outlaws Bar & Grill, where her daughter bartends, and her husband and son-in-law are electricians.

“I love this little town,” she said. “It’s a nice little town. There’s not tons to do, but we’ve met some great people, some great friends. Lots of opportunities.”

‘The busiest ER in the state’

As more people like the Updegraves move into Watford City, the more services it’ll need.

McKenzie County Healthcare Systems plans to break ground on a new $57.3 million hospital and clinic this spring to replace its 62-year-old facility where one hospital board member said the emergency room is, “inundated.”

Dan Kelly, CEO of McKenzie County Healthcare Systems, said the hospital averaged 150 emergency-room visits a month prior to the boom. That number has increased to about 550 each month. They’ll add two new physicians this month and a temporary modular unit to the existing clinic.

“Beyond the increase in emergency room visits, we’re seeing a 20 percent increase in clinic visits year over year,” Kelly stated in an email. “We are at the point where, due to space limitations and our limited number of providers, we cannot accommodate additional patients.”

Larry Larsen, a second-generation pharmacist and a member of the McKenzie County Healthcare Systems board, said the oil industry can’t be in Watford City without suitable health care facilities.

“We’re probably the busiest ER in the state, per capita,” he said. “… We’re providing that service as a county, as a city, as a community. When is someone else going to step up to the plate and say, ‘OK, you have to have a hospital.’? The oil industry can’t be here without a hospital, without medical services.”

Veeder, who in January suffered a life-threatening dissected aorta and had to rely on emergency medical help, said a quality health care system is yet another aspect that newcomers look for when deciding whether or not to put down stakes in Watford City.

“We’re finding that — and an example would be somebody like me — if you don’t have health care, people who have health issues or concerns, or young families, they’ll leave,” Veeder said.

Finding a home

They’ll also leave if they can’t find an affordable place to live.

Apartment rents are slowly falling from the ridiculous rates of the early boom, Sanford said, but very few units are even available. The summer construction season is slated to be hectic with apartments, twin homes and townhomes, and new housing developments all set to take shape.

“Our city planner, Curt Moen, said we’re going to be a plywood city this summer,” Sanford said with a smile. “They might not be filled out this summer, but they’re going to be spoken for.”

Housing hasn’t caught up to other developments in Watford City, and oil companies are beginning to notice.

Sanford said he received a call earlier this year from an official with Hess Corp., asking why the company couldn’t fill a $100,000 a year position at its Keene office northeast of Watford City.

“I said, ‘I wonder why? Where in the world are they going to live?’” Sanford said.

Holen said he expects school enrollment growth to continue and possibly increase once more long-term, affordable housing is established and more men working in the energy industry can feasibly bring their families to Watford City.

“We haven’t even got to the point of where the housing has caught up and the families are going to move,” Holen said. “So I think our largest growth is yet to come. More and more now, the wife is coming here for work (saying), ‘My husband has been here for two years.’”

Commercial growth

More families means a greater demand for everyday services for the booming little city.

However, luring retailers and restaurants is challenging.

Peterson said the 2010 census figure is holding Watford City back from recruiting new commercial businesses. Still, she said a special census in 2015 isn’t likely unless Williston or Dickinson also do one.

“There’s a lot of commercial properties that won’t come into town based on our population,” she said. “We say, ‘No, come see it.’ You can’t just look at the 2010 number. You’ve got to see what we’re living.”

Veeder said more commercial development will come when permanent housing improvements allow more people to become permanent residents.

“The retail piece and service piece, that comes with the rooftops,” he said.

Oil and gas companies aren’t shy about making Watford City their home though.
OneOK is building a gas plant west of Watford City in addition to another northeast of town. Canary, one of the Bakken’s various oilfield service companies, opened its operations headquarters here late last year. Whiting, MBI Energy Services, QEP Resources, Nuverra and Tervita all have offices.

Sanford said a New York-based development company has purchased lots along Main Street downtown with plans to build a seven-story building with underground parking.
Not far away, Dakota West Credit Union is putting up a new three-story headquarters north of where First International Bank built a three-story headquarters and community space last decade.

“There are people here who are representing large-equity plays that are saying, ‘I believe in this place. I’m going to spend way too much money to buy these houses and have my foot on the ground, and it’s ground that I own,’ — in downtown Watford City,” Sanford said with a look of wonder.

Alleviating worries

The road traveling north into Watford City is an eclectic and somewhat unsightly mix of campgrounds, crew camps and oilfield service companies. There’s an agricultural implement dealership, an Assembly of God church undergoing a huge expansion, two new hotels opened within the past year, and a 120,000-square-foot retail complex completed last year by Twin Cities-based Oppidan Investment Co. that features a CashWise supermarket.

City streets are congested and parking is a problem on Main Street. Traffic on two-lane Highway 85 that cuts through town is packed with traffic much of the day, especially in the late afternoon when semi and service trucks begin to back up on their way into Watford City from the south and east.

A bypass connecting northbound and westbound Highway 85 — sending truck traffic away from Watford City — is expected to be completed either later this year or in early 2015.

It can’t come soon enough. Another bypass connected Highway 85 to eastbound Highway 23 will begin an expansion further around the city this summer.

“That was a challenge we’ve overcome,” Veeder said. “One of the biggest challenges you’ve had in this community is adjusting that traffic. We don’t know what that’ll do for our Main Street, for example, but we knew we had to do something with our traffic.”

Like the bypass, most of Watford City’s projects are designed as long-term solutions.

Unfortunately, its city leaders are beginning to feel the strain of balancing the community’s seemingly neverending issues with their day jobs.

Sanford and others expect three of the five City Council members not to run for re-election this fall.

“The hardworking commissioners and city council people probably put in 40 hours a week,” Veeder said “They get a little reimbursement, but it’s minimal.”

Sanford said he’s running for mayor again “because I don’t think I have a choice.”

“I care about my hometown and I want to see the best happen to Watford City,” Sanford said. “I don’t want to see it get out of control. I don’t want to see it turn into a dirty oil town. That’s a tough fight right now, to try and keep it a welcoming community and place where people want to move to. That’s the goal, and the opportunity is right in front of us.”

Sanford said he and others have a vision of what Watford City could become in five to 10 years.

The hope, he said, is that the bypass projects alleviate the city’s “frantic” pace so families working in the oil industry can settle into new homes, send their children to a new school that isn’t overcrowded and work in a more diverse economy not entirely dependent on the oil industry. There’s also an effort to improve Watford City’s cleanliness “instead of just being covered in a layer of dirt all the time from the constant pounding around town of the trucks.”

As for Watford City’s population and size? City leaders hope population estimates are somewhat overblown and it’ll top out around 7,500 to 10,000 people.

“But I think that might be naive,” Sanford said. “I really feel that it might be headed for growing larger than that.”

· · · ◊ ◊ ◊ · · ·

Nothing in America compares to what’s happening right now in Watford City. It’s as simple as that.

As Williston gets the headlines and Dickinson sees the benefits of the Bakken oil boom while not having to deal with the truly dirty side of it, Watford City is stuck right in the middle of it all — “the epicenter” of the biggest shale oil play in American history, as McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder put it.

Most of the talk about Watford City in the past couple years has been about the bypass to send Highway 85’s heavy truck traffic around the city. Lately, we learned of a company in Watford City improperly disposing of radioactive filter socks.

But to truly understand what’s happening on the ground, you have to sit down and speak to the city’s leaders.

After chatting with several Watford City leaders and citizens on Feb. 13, I realized I could spend a week there and only scratch the surface of what’s happening.

In a series of interviews that lasted more than four hours, I received a tutorial on all things Watford City — what it was like before the boom, what it’s like now and what leaders hope the city becomes in the future.

Right now, it’s not good. And there’s no way to sugarcoat it.

The city is growing rapidly and is struggling to deal with the population influx that’s creating challenges at its schools, health care facilities and, of course, on the roads.

Most leaders point to the lack of oil-impact funding from the North Dakota Legislature.

Watford City was not included in the “hub city” funding awarded by legislators in the 2013-15 biennium. It got $10 million toward water and sewer infrastructure, as well as various other small grants and awards.

It may be difficult for legislators not to include Watford City as a hub city when it meets again in 2015. McKenzie County produced more than 8 million barrels of oil in December and had more than one-third of the state’s active drilling rigs at the end of the third week of February, according to the state’s Department of Mineral Resources.

“There’s going to be a lot of drilling in our county for a long time,” Mayor Brent Sanford said.

It only takes a drive around town to see what an impact the oil boom has made on Watford City.

In less than four years, the city has quadrupled in population from 1,744 — there aren’t many longtime Watford City residents I spoke with who didn’t know that number from the 2010 U.S. Census by heart — to more than 7,500 with more workers expected to come this summer for a busy construction season. They’re in a mad rush to build the city out and up to take care of growth, which isn’t anticipated to stop anytime soon.

“Watford City people would love for it to be 3,000 people and it tops out at that,” Sanford said. “But there’s no way that’s going to happen.”

At this point, city leaders are actually counting on it. They’re making financial decisions by preparing for a permanent population of 17,000.

To wrap your head around that figure, imagine taking the population of Dickinson before the oil boom and dropping everyone into an area roughly seven times smaller in size and with fewer services.

Before it has to worry about more population growth, however, Watford City plans to take care of its school enrollment issues. The enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade is larger than the entire district was three years ago, McKenzie County School Superintendent Steve Holen said.

“We often look back and think that it’s hard to comprehend that,” he said.

If Watford City maintains its current population and sees even a normal rate of student migration, it stands to become a Class A-sized school before the end of the decade.

On March 11, McKenzie County citizens — somewhat of a loose term at this point — will vote on whether or not to fund a $27 million bond referendum that would go toward building a $50 million high school and allow students to be split between three buildings instead of two and alleviate most of the enrollment problems for the foreseeable future.

But the biggest challenge for Watford City is trying to convince legislators that it’s worth investing in the city and its estimated $240 million in infrastructure needs.

Larry Larsen, a longtime Watford City pharmacist and owner of Larsen Service Drug on Main Street, said the state is trying to save the oil revenue coming out of McKenzie County and other Oil Patch counties “for a rainy day.”

Meanwhile, storm clouds are hanging over his hometown and they aren’t going away.
“We’re in the rainy-day times right now,” he said. “We have to have some type of help.”

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Mike Gayda stands outside of the Iron Works Welding shop in north Dickinson.

Mike Gayda tried going to college.

After attending Dickinson State University for a short time he acknowledged, “College wasn’t for me.”

So, knowing he had a talent for welding, he took jobs with Steffes Corp. in Dickinson and at the Case IH Steiger plant in Fargo. It was at the latter that the Dickinson native had a chance conversation with a co-worker who tipped him off about welders running their own service trucks in the burgeoning western North Dakota oil fields.

So, in 2006, Gayda decided to move home and start his own business.

“It was perfect timing,” Gayda said.

When he was 20 years old, Gayda started Iron Works Welding with one service truck. He worked out of a heatless quonset on Dickinson’s south side by himself.

By 2008, before the true onset of the oil boom, he had found enough work to hire two employees and build a 6,800 square-foot building on a little less than an acre of land on a space just north of Dickinson in the industrial park off Highway 22.

Today, the 28-year-old has 14 employees — including his own mother — and is again looking to expand because of the growth created by the oil industry.

“Our goal is just to keep growing and keep servicing southwestern North Dakota, depending on how big the oilfield gets or how busy it gets,” Gayda said.

“You’ve got to keep growing with the oilfield.”

Tough start

Gayda didn’t exactly strike when the iron was hot.

His business started about four years before the oil industry truly started gaining steam in western North Dakota.

“I struggled for, I’d say, probably three or four years — at least,” Gayda said.

For a while it was just him and one service truck.

“I was doing work for farmers, basically anything I could get my hands on,” Gayda said.
He soon began subcontracting for Bob’s Oilfield Service, a Belfield-based company established in the last oil boom. After about a year, he started generating business of his own.

“Then the oilfield finally hit and I started making more money,” Gayda said.

Now, Iron Works Welding serves just about every big-name oil company in the Bakken.

The company builds production lines — flow lines for tank batteries and pipeline — and performs rig maintenance. It also does stainless steel and aluminum custom fabrication in its shop and repairs tanks and skids.

“We wouldn’t have the opportunities that we do right now, especially for industry like we’re in,” Gayda said. “I probably wouldn’t be living in North Dakota, that’s for sure.”

Finding good help

Cody Gress, who like Gayda is a Dickinson High School graduate, said the company’s growth has been “pretty wild.
“It was a little bit after the boom started, but it wasn’t really like it is now,” said Gress, who at 25 years old is one of Gayda’s most experienced welders.

Finding good help, however, is difficult. Gayda said his employees are split between North Dakotans — some who moved to Dickinson — and those who came to the area from out of state. Ryan Bettin is one of Gayda’s recent hires. This is the Jackson, Minn., native’s first welding job. He came to Dickinson because of the opportunities.

“Back in Minnesota, it’s tough — no matter what kind of job you’re looking for,” Bettin said. “The openings aren’t there.”

Gayda said, like any other business, it’s difficult to find great help, but maintained he has to be choosy because of the type of work the company does.

“Obviously welding is a skilled job,” Gayda said. “You have to have a knack for it. You have to know what you’re doing. Not just anybody can go weld pipe and certified X-rays and stuff like that. We have to be choosy on who we get.”

Gayda anticipates expansion in the next few years with a bigger building and more employees.

Still, despite all the success his business has experienced in less than a decade, Gayda said he often misses being in the shop welding with the rest of the guys.

“I couldn’t be happier with how the business grew and what success it had,” Gayda said. “I never thought that within six, seven years I’d be sitting here in an office.

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Last fall, after two years of listening to input from the public, special-interest groups and government agencies, the North Dakota Industrial Commission got serious about creating a list of “extraordinary places.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in December designated a list of 18 special places in western North Dakota and crafted a proposed set of rules aimed at limiting the impact of energy exploration in those areas.

Great, right? Republicans working in harmony with the environmental groups to soften oil’s impact on the state? “Is this heaven?” we asked. “No, it’s North Dakota,” they responded.
Too bad it’s a little more complicated than that.

Recently, area lawmakers, landowners, mineral rights owners and groups with which they’re affiliated have spoken out against the proposed “extraordinary places.”

Though the policy would still allow for oil and gas drilling in the places deemed special, opponents believe it is a step in a direction toward unnecessary government control over the rights of property and mineral rights owners as many of the places listed — many of which are in the southwest part of the state — are either on privately owned land or are a mix of public and private lands.

Proponents of the “extraordinary places” point to oil companies altering western North Dakota landscapes. The trouble is, most of those places were or can be rightfully leased by mineral rights owners, regardless of whether or not they have the surface rights.

Some landowners don’t own mineral rights. Some do. That’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be. Some mineral rights belong to the stereotypical, yet often unidentified, “out-of-stater.” Other people own land where the state profits off oil and gas development. Typically, either the landowner or someone who passed the property down to them knowingly purchased it without mineral rights or sold them. This was rarely a concern until a few years ago when everything went bonkers.

In my family, and for many others I know who own land and/or mineral rights, it works both ways. We have mineral rights on some land we don’t own or farm. We also farm land where we either share or don’t own the mineral rights. Thankfully, oil development is still several years away from impacting northwest Hettinger County — if it ever comes that way at all.

But sometime down the line, my brothers and I will inherit that land from my grandmother and father. In most cases, we’ll be the fourth generation of our family to own the land. At that point, the law states that we can do with it what we like. We can farm what we want, let outdoorsmen hunt there or deny them access, or build structures on the property.

If landmen come back to the doorstep and ask us to sign leases allowing oil companies to drill the land, we’ll probably do it. And if they decide to drill there, it will be far from a perfect situation. But the choice is ours. If we want to gamble with the land and allow for oil exploration there, it’s our prerogative.

The same goes for people who own White Butte, Sentinel Butte and other private lands designated under the proposed “extraordinary places” policy. If they own the land and/or the mineral rights and don’t mind having oil wells there for the next 30 to 50 years, then that’s their choice.

Yes, there are some places in the state that must be protected from energy exploration. Of course we shouldn’t be drilling for oil in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And yes, areas near water do indeed need special attention.

But if land is privately owned, the state government should let the person who owns the land and the mineral rights unequivocally have the final say in whether or not they want drilling on the land.

The public, a special interest group or a government agency shouldn’t have the ability to dictate what happens on private land — no matter how pretty or “extraordinary” that land may be.

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