By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
DICKINSON, N.D. — City Commissioner Shirley Dukart knows the influx of people searching for work in western North Dakota oil fields upsets some of her constituents, but she can’t help feeling compassion for the newcomers.
“When people are willing to live in a truck to have a job, you have to sympathize with them,” she says.
As oil companies work furiously to capitalize on the boom produced by the region’s massive Bakken and Three Forks oil and gas geologic formations, workers continue flocking to this once-sleepy town. The competition for a place to sleep is so fierce that a mobile home now rents for the price of a Southern California three-bedroom.
Dan Wells’ story is much like any other oil patch worker. He came to the area in August looking for a decent paying job and immediately secured a position with a trucking company.
He left his wife in Moscow, Idaho, while she took classes at the university there. He brought only what could fit in his Chrysler: his clothes, personal effects and air mattress.
His first two weeks in Dickinson were reminiscent of his recent bachelorhood. He ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and dinner, occasionally switching to ramen noodles to spice things up.
Other workers, including his two brothers, noticed Dan’s less-than-desirable eats and offered him money or some of their grubs. Most of the time, he deferred.
“I’m not looking for handouts,” he says.
He spent six months as a laborer, each day meticulously studying how to drive big-rig trucks for his new employer. He earned his trucking license in April, along with a hefty raise. He earns $25 per hour, $37 for overtime.
Dan is looking for something beyond the oil fields, though. He enjoys the big bucks, driving big rigs and hauling water tanks. But his heart is elsewhere.
He wants to study at the University of Montana and then work in medicine, though he’s not sure if he wants to be a doctor.
The oil patch is his vehicle to get where he wants to go, a segue to bigger and better things.
But those things will wait. They have to.
It’s not that life in Dickinson is terrible. It wasn’t Dan’s only employment option, but it was his best.
To fund school and pay off debt, Dan expects he’ll spend the next couple of years working the oil fields, hoping to stash enough cash to pay for school without student loans.
Shannel, his wife, joined him shortly after he moved to Dickinson. She withdrew from university classes, and her dad helped her drive a U-Haul full of the couple’s stuff to North Dakota.
Thanks to the exploding employment market, she got a job in a local retail store the same day she applied for it.
Where else in America can someone do that?
Knowing how easy it was to get that job, she eventually moved on to a community bank, upping her wages and securing modest benefits.
Before heading to Moscow for school, Dan worked with a Spokane, Wash.-based wilderness drilling company in a job that forced him to travel more than he liked.
“We just didn’t get to spend a lot of time together,” Dan says.
Out in the sparsely populated western North Dakota region, the couple grows closer by the day.
“It’s a blessing because I can see that every night,” Shannel says. “I love that. I enjoy making him dinner and preparing his lunches and taking care of him.
“That’s just another reason I moved out here. Just to be with him.”
They see Dickinson as a nice community with copious amenities and recreational opportunities. They admit they’re annoyed that locals take advantage of oil workers by raising prices on everything from groceries to rent.
“It’s the locals who are pricing it like that because they know they can,” Shannel complains. “If you aren’t going to rent it from them, they know the next guy will.”
Back in Moscow, a college town with limited housing options, their two-bedroom apartment might cost anywhere from $750 to $900 each month. In Dickinson, it’s $1,400 monthly and they consider that a steal. And while Dan appreciates the workings of the marketplace, he also believes locals might be shortsighted.
“What they’re really doing is going after the oil company and oil services companies,” Dan says.
The couple is searching to find new housing after their landlord increased rent by $320 a month without any tenant input.
“It came down in a notice,” Dan says. “And they can do it, because they know they have us.”
A quick scan of the local newspaper shows a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment renting for $1,500 per month. A three-bedroom mobile home goes for $2,300 a month.
Local officials are looking for alternatives. City Manager Shawn Kessel says Dickinson annexed more than 400 acres of agricultural land this year and is eyeing 600 more acres to provide retail and housing space.
And while newcomers might have problems with locals, some of the hard feelings are mutual. Some longtime Dickinson residents are uncomfortable with the change the oil boom brings.
City Commissioner Dukart hears the complaints from people who say, “We liked it when it was quieter and that’s why we’re moving.” She says some elderly residents consider moving out, finding a town where big oil trucks don’t dominate the road and construction doesn’t constantly reroute traffic.
Others stay, but complain about their new reality. “If you’ve lived in Dickinson for 20 or 30 years, I’ve had people say (the oil boom) is not in our best interest,” Kessel says. “They like the sleepy old town.”
But the sleepy town is gone, probably for good. Some projections show Dickinson’s population will more than double by decade’s end to at least 40,000 people. Others say the number could be as high as 45,000.
Dan and Shannel appreciate the small, “down-home” feel of Dickinson , even in the midst of the boom. Kessel says planners are working hard to preserve it.
“Our quality of life is one thing we pride ourselves on here in Dickinson,” he says.
And, for the Wells family, things could be far worse. They could be in a more populated part of the country without good jobs.
“There are other, more grave sacrifices than being out here,” Dan says. “Not being able to earn a living wage is the true sacrifice.”