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Boom: Black Oil. Bright Future.

May 9, 2012, 10:39 PM by Kelly Bartnick

Boom: Black Oil. Bright Future.

Thousands have flocked to North Dakota oil boom towns to find work.  But what about those who've lived there for years? The influx of people has brought crime and congestion.  However, each new face points to something else too; a brighter future for dozens of small towns that once seemed doomed.

"The bottom line is everybody wants a piece of the oil field pie," Joe Martin, who has called Watford City home for two years, said.

But if you want the money, like Martin, you have to move there. Even as an outsider he's seen drastic changes in a town that once didn't even have a stop light. Martin drives one of the big rigs that clog the roads here each day. His piece of the pie amounts to more than a $100,000 per year.

"They all thought I turned 50 and went crazy," Martin said. "But I grew up on a farm, and I like trucks."

Watford City sits in the middle of the Bakken Oil Basin. It began growing about five years ago when oil jumped to $140 a barrel. At first, growth dropped off sharply.  But as oil prices climbed people started coming. And they haven't let up.

"All the studies we've hired done and looked at ourselves, by the time the ink is dry they're outdated and we've blown through those numbers," McKenzie County Commissioner Dale Patten said.

His best guess is that this town, with a population that once barely topped 1,500, is now ready to pass 8,000.

"Whenever you add another 10,000 people you're going to have an increase in crime. Whenever you add most of them being young, single men, they're not always in the smartest phase of their life," Martin said.

Patten says high wages have forced base pay up and made filling jobs not related to the oil fields nearly impossible. But one of the biggest problems here is that roads, highways, streets and every other piece of the grid are constantly overwhelmed.

"At 65 miles-per-hour, it's like, whew, whew, whew, you just don't get a chance to relax at all!" resident Roger Maki said.

Maki doesn't like everything about the boom. Neither do his neighbors. But he'd rather look toward the future than complain about it.

Maki just broke ground on a new house in a brand new development east of Watford City. He is selling his home across from a motel the family owns. Both are on the busiest street in town just down the street from one of the town's three new traffic lights.

"There was 29,000 vehicles and 60 percent were trucks counted on the highway intersection in 12 hours," he said.

Maki considers himself lucky. He recently sold his trucking company and now runs an oil service business. The boom has made him financially successful. It's a far cry from heartbreak here in the 1980s.

"When the oil went south in '86, I lost a house. But I got one back so it's a wash," Maki said.

Residents say this is Watford City's third oil boom. It's also the biggest and it should be the longest, projected to last up to 20 years. Officials here expect this once sleepy town to balloon to a small city of at least 15,000.

"It's gonna be bigger. There will be more going on. It's gonna be a financially successful community with opportunities for people," Patten said.

Since the oil began flowing in Watford City, the town has spent millions of dollars reconstructing downtown streets. And now officials are looking ahead to even more. There is talk about a new high school and even a new airport.

"It'll take more money," Patten said. "But on the positive side, it's there. It's just channeling it the right way."

North Dakota leaders have a unique problem. A billion dollar state surplus brought on by oil production that now tops 500,000 barrels of oil pulled from the ground each day.  All of it is within about an hour of Watford city.

"We've been drilling through the Bakken crude for 50 years" Maki said. "We just sailed right through it. Now we've got an opportunity to get oil out of something no one could get oil out of."

"These people out here have struggled for a lot of years. It's not the best family land," Martin said. "It's actually just ranch land."

The oil activity has pumped billions into the local economy and it's not done. Neither are the struggles that have come with growth.

"It's almost impossible to plan for something like this. Hopefully you react well and fit some things in place as you go forward so you're being proactive," said Patten.

That may be the good advice for South Dakota, which remains largely unexplored but not for long.

Watford City sits in McKenzie County, which is among the fastest growing counties in the country. The city's unemployment rate is just 1.7 percent; in the county, it's less than one percent.

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