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What's Coming Down The Pipe?

February 5, 2012, 9:55 PM by Derek Olson

What's Coming Down The Pipe?
The oil boom in western North Dakota has been great news for the state, but also lent itself to inflation and higher crime.

That prompted the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce to hold a meeting to discuss how western South Dakota can benefit from the activity while avoiding its pitfalls.

It was standing room only at the Belle Fourche Community Center last Thursday, as people gathered to listen to a panel of North Dakota experts talk about the oil boom taking place near Williston.

"Probably 500 people showed up here tonight. And that says that there are a lot of people that are interested in the topic, that care about western South Dakota, and want to know what could potentially happen to this part of the state. And I think that's a great thing," PUC Commissioner Chris Nelson said.

"I was blown away by the crowd and the people who were here. And I'm glad they came because it shows that the surrounding communities and the people who live here are interested and they do care," Belle Fourche resident Charlie Johnson said.

The sudden influx of workers and wealth that came along with the explosion in oil production caught many North Dakotans off guard.

"The number of workers that are coming in would be beyond what we had ever expected in the early years of this activity taking off," North Dakota Economic Development and Finance Director Paul Lucy said.

But that increase in workers had some unintended consequences: increasing crime rates, rampant inflation, and a major housing crisis.

"One of the issues that we are working to resolve is the availability of sufficient housing for all of the workers who are coming into the region," Lucy said.

A January report from the North Dakota Sheriff's and Deputies Association claims that it costs around $2,000 per month to rent a one bedroom apartment in Williston if you can find one.

"It's certainly a supply and demand issue. And as we see more housing being put in place, both temporary and permanent, we will most likely see some of those prices coming down," Lucy said.

But instead of focusing on North Dakota's troubles, this meeting was about learning from their mistakes, so South Dakota can be ready if the oil wells move south.

"The oil is not here yet, and people are saying, "When's it coming? When's it coming?" We can't answer that. The state can't even answer that yet. However, it still doesn't hurt to be working out some of the bugs ahead of time so that we do everything in a proactive way," Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Teresa Schanzenbach said.

"Folks need to be prepared for that kind of explosive, overnight growth," Nelson said.

And, overall, the message in Belle Fourche was a positive one.

"We've had a budget surplus for a number of years and so the oil activity has just helped to supplement that surplus," Lucy said.

"What we heard tonight, repeatedly, is that there's plenty of economic development to go around. We're all a big team in this," Rapid City's Mayor Sam Kooiker said.

And although there were more questions here than could be answered in one evening, it's the beginning of a public dialogue on what the area's future will look like.

"This is just the beginning of what will probably be a very long process. Communication is key. There is a lot of misinformation and people who are worried about what's going to happen and they're not hearing what's really happening. So I think it's really important that we keep the dialogue going," Schanzenbach said.

"It's really exciting, and we need to be prepared for it. We need to welcome it. We need to embrace it. We also need to go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that there are risks. But with opportunity, there always are risks," Kooiker said.

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