By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
WILLISTON, N.D. – Leaving one of this town’s two strip clubs, two men blink in the fleeting sunlight. “It feels weird coming out here and it’s still daylight,” one quips.
Another man, complete with backward ball cap and saggy jeans, high-fives the bouncer and anyone else in sight while shuffling into the club.
“We da’ stars,” he screams joyfully.
And these oil guys are the stars. They star in an oil rush produced by fracking, a new technology by which oil companies send a chemical cocktail thousands of feet into the earth to break apart solid rock, releasing trapped, prodigious oil reserves.
Thanks to fracking, these oil men are bringing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to market—putting North Dakota second only to Texas in yearly domestic production—and helping North Dakota notch the nation’s lowest unemployment rate at 2.9 percent, more than 6 points under the nationwide average.
As the oil flows from the Bakken and Three Forks geologic formations, so do piles of cash to the nearly 35,000 new North Dakota oil patch workers, predominately younger men.
Young men who like to party.
But these rowdy young men also star in less-endearing roles. Since the boom’s rise, crime, including rapes, burglaries and even prostitution, is way up and some native North Dakotans are wary about a lifestyle that could make its way across the Montana border as Treasure State drilling ramps up.
Williston, ND is the epicenter of the Bakken oil boom. The U.S. Census Bureau lists the city’s population at 16,000, but a quick glance at the abundant RVs, trailers and man-camps across the cityscape shows the number is wildly inaccurate.
A Saturday night in this small agricultural town shows the shift in population.
Williston hosts two of the state’s four strip clubs, Heartbreakers and Whispers. Several news outlets have written about club dancers earning more than $2,000 each night shaking their goodies for young, lonely oil men.
A bouncer at one of the clubs – the manager asked that we not reveal the club or the employee’s name for fear of bad press – says the claim is exaggerated.
“There are some Tuesday nights in here when it is dead and they barely make anything,” the burley bouncer says. “They do make $2,000 a night on a really good night.”
So, strippers aren’t pulling down $60,000 a month, but the money is good, averaging about $700 for each of the 10 dancers.
The bouncer, who left a job at home improvement giant Lowe’s in Kalispell, MT, to search for oil field work before settling on the strip club gig, says while young men enriched with oil field earnings blow their money at the club, local men, too, get in on the action.
“Now they’re getting paid because they have wells on their lands,” the bouncer said.
While some men spend their scarce free time at the strip clubs, other choose more nefarious activities.
According to CNN, Williston police calls tripled between 2010 and 2011, overwhelming law enforcement. From 2007 to 2009, Williston city officers fielded 1,000 service calls. In just one month this year, CNN’s Blake Ellis writes, the city took more than 4,000 calls.
Williston added five police positions last year and more could come on board soon.
The town sees such standard-issue crimes as assaults, burglaries and theft, but also some that haven’t popped up in years. Last year, city police broke up a four-woman prostitution ring, a first since the 1980s. Other suspected prostitution rings remain under investigation.
“That’s probably one of the things new to the area,” Captain Verland Kvande, a 14-year Williams County Sheriff’s Office veteran, told Watchdog.org.
“There are men who come to the oil fields with little to do in their free time and they have money,” Kvande explained. “That’s just an opportunity for something like that to happen.”
Kvande’s office, too, is bulking up to deal with oil newcomers.
The sheriff’s office doubled its patrol team since 2009 and added one investigator. The department’s budget, about 80 percent staffer salaries, also doubled since 2009.
The county is housing more inmates in its Williston jail facility. In 2008, the boom’s start, the county housed 832 inmates. In 2011, the number jumped to 1,186 for the year.
Through June 2012, the county housed 1,138 inmates, putting it on track to easily eclipse last year’s numbers.
Kvande admits crime is up in his little corner of the world, but feels it’s proportional to the population increases. Besides the prostitution, it’s the ordinary crimes increasing, though he says the transient nature of some workers leads to a massive spike in thefts.
“They’re really not in a way to secure their belongings,” Kvande said of workers living in some man-camps, RVs, and mobile trailers.
Some locals, while opening arms to newfound oil wealth, are less than thrilled about the region’s changing dynamic.
“This is new to everyone,” Kvande explains. “Change is hard.”
Quiet cues convey locals’ discomfort with the newcomers.
On a Saturday night here, four middle-aged oil men post up on a downtown corner, just steps from some of Williston’s most frequented bars. A group of young, probably single ladies pull up and park their SUV just steps from the group.
Dressed in short skirts and packing trendy purses, the ladies make final hair and make-up checks in the car mirrors. The men look on, maybe hoping to get lucky. They make no catcalls or whistles, just look wistfully at the young cadre of attractive girls.
The women sense the attention and it’s unwanted. They too say nothing, but go to great efforts to dodge the men, walking around a number of cars in a nearby parking lot instead of using the sidewalk, putting more distance between themselves and the men.
Others are more vocal about their distaste for the new culture.
A very flamboyant mob of mostly younger women floods the city streets. A veil sits atop one young woman’s head as she clutches a small floral bouquet. It’s a bachelorette party.
The ladies are quick to deride the oil men when asked about the cultural shift.
“It’s a big sausage fest,” one says.
“Can we not discuss that because we’re having fun right now?” an older lady, the group’s chaperone, asks, visibly annoyed.
Yet, these young ladies exemplify, in small measure, their region’s relationship with the rough oil men: North Dakotans, landowners in particular, love the wealth and opportunity black gold brings, but are somewhat uncomfortable with the men delivering it.
While they roam Williston’s late night streets, the girls peddle sugary suckers and glow stick necklaces to human suckers – any oil man willing to give the party some attention. The girls seek to raise cash to send the soon-to-be bride and groom to the Dominican Republic for their honeymoon.
It turns out, more than suckers and glowing trinkets sell on these city streets.
The party flocks around a young man who looks to be in his mid-20s. They offer him a sucker or a glow stick, but he wants something else: Some satisfaction in the form of a kiss.
And for $20, he finds a willing seller.
“I just kissed a man for $20,” she screams after the encounter, her exuberant cry filling the vacant night’s soundscape. “Don’t tell my husband.”
The girls storm each area bar, hawking their goods, attention and affection. By the end of the night, one young lady says they’ve collected probably thousands, though they haven’t kept track.
The discomfort, however, is somewhat mutual.
Lamar, another 20-something young man clad in a white tank-top and black jeans, says Williston locals are sometimes less than friendly.
“This is the wild, wild west right now,” he warns.
Lamar came to town searching for work, but also to bring his pregnant wife closer to her family.
Earlier that night, he says walked into the wrong Williston bar – a biker bar – and some patrons roughed him up. They didn’t like his tattoos or the fact that Lamar spent time in a Montana state prison.
“This is nuts, dude.”
Clubs and nighttime establishments deal with the changing clientele in different ways.
The strip club bouncer says he doesn’t search patrons, but security is always alert for fights or other improper behavior. He and co-workers also continually scan for any signs of men toting guns or knives.
At DK’s Lounge, the hottest of Williston’s night spots, security guards armed with a metallic-sensing wand search each clubgoer while another uses a handheld scanner to check for fake identification.
The wand is a recent addition, management says, in response to more heated disagreements within the clubs walls. They added the wand in February, a manager says.
A guard at DK’s on wand duty on August 30, however, adds to the fiction of burgeoning Williston.
He believes the wand was deployed after three oil men raped another man behind the club a few months prior. He says it was a pretty nasty incident.
Except it didn’t happen.
A quick Internet search for incident details turned up nothing. And a club manager, in an interview a day later, confirmed it’s a tall, sordid tale.
“I don’t know how that got out like that,” a daytime manager says.
Management surmises the yarn stemmed from an actual incident in which an oil man accidentally backed his car into another behind the club. There was no fight and definitely no rape, the manager says.
Kvande says rumors run rampant because some locals fear changes the life oil thrusts upon them.
“If there’s a little bit of fear,” he says, “it just exacerbates the rumors.”