Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Back home again, in Williston, ND

A few months ago, I watched a POV documentary on PBS – how’s that for a nifty double use of acronyms? if only I could have thought up a third – on the shale oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota. The show focused on the men who’ve flocked to the town to work as roughnecks. They were living anyplace they could find: crummy motels, RV’s, cars, trucks, cots on church floors, chicken coops, camps with slapped up quarters that looked like the “nice” portapotty setups. You know, the white plastic looking ones where you can actually flush the toilet and don’t live in fear that your watch and glasses are going to drop into the horrific portapotty slough of despond.

Pretty terrible, all round, and quite a jolt for the residents of a quiet All American town straight out of American Graffiti. Letterman jackets. Ham and bean suppers at the Lutheran Church. Kids decorating their bikes for the 4th of July parade.

Then all of a sudden, their population almost doubles. Mostly single men from somewhere else, without wives and kids. We’re not talking Tom Joad here. No Ma and Pa Joad. No Rose of Sharon. We’re talking about single men, on their own, and bringing with them the problems that come when you’ve got thousands of unaccompanied males with money in their jeans.

Then the oil boom began to get into a bit of a bust.

A lot of those migrants-in became migrants-out.

Unfortunately, not before a building-binge started:

After struggling to house thousands of migrant roughnecks during the boom, the state faces a new real-estate crisis: The frenzied drilling that made it No. 1 in personal-income growth and job creation for five consecutive years hasn’t lasted long enough to support the oil-fueled building explosion.

Civic leaders and developers say many new units were already in the pipeline, and they anticipate another influx of workers when oil prices rise again. But for now, hundreds of dwellings approved during the heady days are rising, skeletons of wood and cement surrounded by rolling grasslands, with too few residents who can afford them. (Source: Bloomberg)

Development companies, it seems, misread both the boom-bust nature of oil production (oil prices are down), and the interest that there would be in family-friendly apartment complexes and suburban subdivisions to begin with.

Apparently, as depressing and hideous as they were, the men folk were pretty content with whatever man camp they found themselves in. They knew they were only their temporarily. When the boom goes bust, they pack it in and head back home to wherever their families are – or on to the next place where there’s an employment rush.

The migrants out are leaving a trail of RV’s behind them:

As the migrant workers leave, their castoffs pile up in scrap yards such as TJ’s Autobody & Salvage outside Alexander, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Williston. More than 400 discarded vehicles crowd its lot, including souped-up pickup trucks and an RV with rotting potatoes and a dead mouse in the sink.

This must be doing wonders for the look and feel of Williston.

Not to mention what the half-built housing subdivisions are doing for it. Most don’t seem to be abandoned – yet. But in the pictures, parts of Williston are starting to look an awful lot like the “ghost estates” that you’d see throughout Ireland in the wake of their real-estate induced economic crisis.

A few years back, on what turned out to be our last trip to Ireland together, my husband and I walked though one near Shannon Airport, where we spent our last night before heading back to Boston. Talk about hideous and depressing.

Back in Williston, some of the property developers claim to be in it for the long pull. They think that there’ll be enough local oil production in the Williston area to attract a more permanent workforce – the kind that live in houses with their families, not in RV’s with rotting potatoes and dead mice.

Good luck to Williston.

As it happens, North Dakota is on my bucket list. I’d like to do all 50 states, and ND is one of the few remaining states on my list (along with Alaska, Kentucky and Tennessee). Maybe when I get to ND, I’ll take a detour from Fargo and check Williston out. Unless there’s another boom, I suspect I’ll be able to get some short term digs pretty cheaply.

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