The Boom from a Developer’s Perspective

On Friday morning we drove to Trenton,  just west of Williston to meet with a civil engineering, land surveying, and planning company taking advantage of the Bakken boom. In a two hour meeting we were given an overwhelming amount of information. I’m going to try to frame the summary and how it affects our project:

First, I think it’s worthwhile to consider these guys’ background to understand their position here. We spoke with a business developer and an architect (their names will remain confidential).

The business developer’s education is in electrical engineering. He originally intended on pursuing a career in power distribution. This path led him to be an engineer in the Air Force, but he later took on work as a contractor doing mainly carpentry work. He was able land high profile clients in penthouse apartments in Manhattan while he attended NYU for construction management school.  He would later relocate to Colorado to work for his current as a construction manager. In 2009 he first heard of Williston and came here on a private jet  to build 40 spec  homes –which sold like crazy. He has focused his business here since, leading to the office location we had the meeting at.

The architect studied at NDSU and spent the first 25 years of his career in Minneapolis designing several built projects ranging from healthcare to housing. After the 2008 economic crash he left his job and heard of work booming in Williston prompting him to visit for the first time in 2010. He told stories of sleeping in a sleeping bag in a flooded basement with up to eight other guys, because at that time there was nowhere to live. He would travel back to his family every six weeks. He worked for a small architecture and engineering company and was eventually hired by his current company. Meanwhile he finally was able to buy a house to move his family to Williston permanently. Through some incredible hardship he asserts that he never regrets coming here.

Two guys with very different backgrounds and very different paths to the Bakken. So I am going to address their perspectives separately.

The business developer is pro-oil. Immediately after we introduced ourselves he handed us a vial of Bakken sweet crude. “Smell it,” he says, “I smell money.” He went on to sensationalize the stories of the boom we had heard before, and gave his view on ‘fracking.’ He prefers to call it ‘stimulation.’ Fracking gets a bad rap. The earth naturally stimulates itself all the time. Pumping high pressure water sand and chemicals is only replicating a natural process.

He had some interesting perspectives on the present and the future concerning population.  He asserts that if the industry were to stop all drilling today, there would still be demand for 10,000 homes to be built. He claimed that the sewage infrastructure in Williston is currently capable of serving 35,000 people. The census population is only 20,000, but the water daily usage reflects an actual population at any given time upwards of 50,000. He believes that Williston can easily expect a population upwards of 100,000 in the next 10 years. At that time there would be a minimum of 10,000 producing wells in the area, requiring 4 full-time workers each. That’s 40,0000 jobs, and with the average American family size at 2.8/household, the total population could easily surpass 100,000. Good news for a business developer.

So how is the city responding? First, they are expanding their city limits. This pattern of growth was referred to as ‘spot annexation.’ The large areas of land slated for development are not contiguous with the current built areas of the city, so ‘ribbons’ of land are annexed in addition to connect it primarily for the purposes of infrastructure. This is a strategic move for the developers. On one hand they need to react to the patterns of expanding infrastructure so the city is ready to connect their new development, but on the other hand they also have the leverage to persuade where the infrastructure gets expanded to based on where they can guarantee development will be.  A complex issue no doubt, and all the while the county is constantly battling against expansion, because the county commissioners all  live outside the city, and intend to keep it that way, unless annexation eventually swallows their land. They do not want to see city growth in their rural life. They do however all have mineral rights on their land, and are raking it in as the industry booms. No circumstance is straightforward in Williston.

Furthermore, we heard some interesting perspectives on the changing demographics and subsequent changes in development. Two years ago there were only four kindergarten classes in all of Williston, and today there are seventeen. There are far more women than five years ago, and the young families are clearly growing, but there are still over 10,000 occupied man-camp beds. The plan is to close all of them and transition to permanent housing. The development of permanent housing follows a typical pattern of hotels, then apartments, then multifamily duplexes, then single family, because it follows the rate of demand. Currently 80% of development is required to meet affordable housing standards for the area, or less than $200,000. Affordable… because the mean salary here is $75,000.

In an effort to address design by not ‘solving’ a problem, but to rather highlight something positive happening, we asked, “what is working?” From the developer’s perspective the city is working. They have a master plan in mind that promotes positive sustainable growth –or at least growth that aligns with developer incentive. They want to make projects happen. They are striving to expand infrastructure and promote permanent settlement. It means sustained money for the city.  He didn’t state it as explicitly, but the other clear component that is working is the oil industry. It is an extremely profitable machine. Soon, pipelines will connect all of the wells to each other to transport water, oil, and gas making the Bakken in Williams county the largest industrial park in the world. $13.5 billion was spent by oil companies this past year alone. At least in the near future, the boom is not going anywhere. Or as an oil man would say, “it’s not a boom… it’s an industry.”


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