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North Dakota Oil Boom Brings Good And Bad To Williston

May 13, 2014, 10:13 PM by Kevin Woster

North Dakota Oil Boom Brings Good And Bad To Williston

Since the 2010 census, Williston, North Dakota has doubled its population from 15,000 to 30,000. Located in the middle of the Bakken oil fields boom, Williston attracts people from around the world who are seeking jobs and high wages.  But with the good also comes the bad.

Crime rates have risen in the community, social services needs are soaring and economic development officials struggle to counter the negative image of a city on the rise.  But it’s also a magnet for people who have dreams and hope jobs in or near the fields could make them come true.

Some arrive by rail with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream. From any state and many foreign lands, job seekers arrive hungry for the elevated wages they hope will change their lives.

It doesn't have to be in the oil fields, either. Forty-two-year-old cook Robert Studway came out from Chicago to make enough money to buy an apartment building back home. He took a rare day off to meet his nephew at the station.

"As soon as he gets off the train, I got four jobs for us to go fill out applications for," Studway said.

Studway has two jobs himself and says he could have more if there were more hours in the day.

"At Outlaws, I'm averaging about 55 hours a week and I'm averaging about 55 hours at Famous Dave's. I'm a grill cook at both of them," he said. "Sometimes it sucks, but it's okay.  I don't complain when I get my check. That's all I'll say."

Paychecks here are hard to match. While the big money is in the oil and gas fields, the average wage in Williams County is close to $80,000 a year. Jobs are everywhere as communities and local governments try to keep up with the energy explosion.

At the Williston office of Job Service North Dakota, more than 2,100 jobs are listed. Office manager Cindy Sanford says new businesses and jobs are turning up every day.

"Now we're seeing a lot more skilled labor needed. If you have cement, or if you had any cement finishing or anything like that, right now people are crying for that skill," Sanford said. "Because the weather is hopefully going to be nice enough and they're pouring like crazy."

There are other kinds of crazy in this landscape gone wild with growth. Crime rates have soared overall. Investigators fight the rising sales of methamphetamine and other drugs that North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon says have increasingly close ties to Mexican cartels.

It's a harsh reality of economic success that officials for the Williston Economic Development office acknowledge and try to counter.

"We have our share of crime up here. We also tripled the size of our population in a very short period of time," assistant director Shawn Wenko said.  "If you go looking for trouble, you're probably going to find it. But I've never felt unsafe in this community."

The city has its seedy side, however. You can see part of it when you step off the train. Two strip clubs are the first shops up the street, followed by a bar and the Salvation Army. There Capt. Joshua Stansbury has seen the need for meals, showers, prescriptions and other services quadruple over the last three years.

"There's a huge need for mental health practitioners here in Williston," Stansbury said. "We see it everyday, everyday."

There's no way, he says, to deny the increased crime, including reports of sex trafficking.

"I'm not singling out the strip clubs that are right by us, but that has to do with it," Stansbury said.  "You're always going to have the good with the bad, bad with the good."

Studway accepts both in order to keep putting check after check in the bank, as he looks forward to an easier pace someday back home.

"It's had its ups and downs," he said. "But I can't complain about the money."

Few people here can.

Studway says that despite the boom, he still considers Williston to be a small town with a relatively quiet lifestyle. As for the growing crime problem, he says that's still small as well when compared to his home city of Chicago.

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