Still Building A Dream: Despite A Decline In Oil Prices Creating Uncertainty, Southwest ND Continues To Beckon Those Seeking Success

A worker for Tommy Thompson Contracting measures a 2-by-4 piece of wood Tuesday while building a home not far from the new CHI St. Joseph’s Health campus in Dickinson.

Note: This column is written as the introduction to The Dickinson Press’ annual Progress edition, which begins Sunday, Feb. 1 and continues each Sunday through March 22.

You see them every day. In supermarkets, at your job or school, as you sit down to eat, or when you drive past a construction site.

Almost everywhere you look in southwest North Dakota, people are achieving the so-called “American Dream.”

Western North Dakota, for the past five years or so, has been a place where just about anyone could get back on their feet. There are people here who were broke only a few years ago but now have thriving businesses or jobs that pay very well. Others were simply able to get out of debt after falling on hard times elsewhere.

Now, however, as we enter a time of simultaneous progress and uncertainty, there seems to be few willing to say the good times are over, even if the boom is.

Over the next eight weeks, The Dickinson Press’ annual Progress supplement will spotlight the people and businesses of Dickinson and its surrounding areas, a very small part of our country but one that embodies many characteristics of the American Dream.

Cooper Whitman, the Dickinson Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, said he knows businesses — particularly those directly tied to the energy industry — are cutting back, but there hasn’t been much of a slowdown, at least not yet. People, he said, are still taking chances on businesses and coming to his office looking for guidance as they try to make a go of life in western North Dakota and take advantage of our economy.

“There are businesses that are cutting back, some layoffs, maybe shutting down some services, keeping others open, altering their hours — whatever they have to do,” Whitman said. “But we still have new members walking through the door asking to be a part of the Chamber, to be a part of the community. … There’s still a ton going on. There’s still more development happening here than most places in the country.”

Gaylon Baker, the executive director of the Stark Development Corp., said fluctuating oil prices have long created delicate economies — something Dickinson has seen before because of the energy industry and is experiencing once again.

“We just have to live with that inconsistency,” he said.

That’s part of the reason why Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson said city leaders intentionally shied away from using the word “boomtown” as the city’s population rapidly expanded.

Johnson believes the area’s ability to rely on multiple industries — such as agriculture and manufacturing instead of only energy — will pay off if the oil slowdown is indeed long lasting.

“We on the (Dickinson City) Commission have never embraced the boomtown mystique,” he said. “We didn’t want to be boomtown. Whatever the opposite of boomtown was, that’s really what we wanted to be. Think of the old fable, ‘The Tortoise and the Hare.’ We definitely, from the leadership perspective, said we want to be the tortoise here. We want to approach that here in a deliberate manner.

“If our strategy is effective, then I think we’ll retain more energy jobs than will be our fair share. The strategy of economic diversification is going to come into play.”

With oil prices at their lowest in seven years, the boom is undoubtedly over for southwest North Dakota. But the oil is still pumping, and with so many long-term jobs here tied to production, there’s bound to be continued progress.

So, over the next eight Sundays, be sure to check for our Progress section, where we’ll be bringing you stories of the people and businesses that are still making southwest North Dakota the embodiment of the American Dream.