Monke: Dickinson needs a long-term population solution
Last week, one of my work colleague's struck up a conversation with a Dickinson newcomer who had recently moved here from Idaho.
The man said he had left an economically depressed area but was doing well here. Still, he had no intention of bringing his family to Dickinson so that he could both work and live here. Why not? It was economically infeasible for him to do so. He was making good money but not enough to find an affordable living situation to make the move work. So, here the man stays, working hard away from his family and sending most of the money he earns in North Dakota back to his real home.
Like so many others, he's not much more than a visitor to our city and state.
This man's story shows a reality of what's really happening in Dickinson and western North Dakota.
While some people move here as families, there are far more (almost exclusively men) in the Oil Patch by themselves and sending money back to their families in another state.
I've heard of cases where the families just didn't want to come, and that's understandable. Others, like the man from Idaho, can't make the economics work for various reasons. Some are saving money until their families can join them here -- with the caveat that a suitable place to live is found first. Many, however, aren't here for the long haul. They want the paycheck and the experience, and then they're gone.
So why are we even in this situation in the first place?
The answer, of course, is supply and demand. When the population explosion began, western North Dakota didn't have enough homes and apartments to keep up with the demand, so prices naturally climbed.
But seemingly every day, we're told that places like Dickinson and Williston are catching up. Everywhere you look, we're reminded of this with construction of more housing -- whether it's single-family homes or apartments -- and expansion of the city in nearly every direction. Yet, home prices are still well over market value, and apartment and townhome rental prices force people to squeeze more into a living space than they probably should.
Drive by some of the new developments in Dickinson and it's clear to see there are more than a few violations of the city municipal code stating that no more than four unrelated individuals should live in a housing unit. But what are these people supposed to do? Spend half their paycheck (or more) on renting 800 square feet of space that serves as little more than a place to rest their head?
A friend told me this week that Dickinson can't "grow as a city entirely on oilfield workers and truck drivers." And he's absolutely right. How can one afford to be a teacher, a nurse, a waitress, a custodian or work at any type of unskilled labor job that pays an hourly wage?
Countless businesses in the city -- many established for decades -- are giving housing stipends along with record wages just to keep those people from leaving for places like Bismarck, Fargo, Billings, Mont., or Rapid City, S.D. -- cities once thought of as more expensive alternatives than Dickinson.
Last Wednesday, the people representing and working with the Baron's Group of Companies on its Baron's Vista development planned for west Dickinson said the development calls for smaller lots than designated under city code. Yet, the projected starting home price would be between $180,000 and $240,000. That means, for low-end housing in that development, one would still be looking at a monthly mortgage payment of around $900 after taxes with no down payment. I commend the people behind Baron's for trying to give Dickinson some "affordable" housing options, but what is "affordable" to some still isn't to many -- especially when the value of the smaller lot is factored in.
Baron's wants to build a mega mall and a high-rise hotel. Five Diamonds Funds Managers is trying to bring a new shopping center and movie theater to west Dickinson. Roers' West Ridge Development is coming along nicely but has had a fluctuating list of potential tenants since it was announced.
Brian Hymel, a developer for Five Diamonds, told me earlier this month that some businesses simply don't pay attention to the number of people in a trade area. They look at the number of rooftops -- and Dickinson just doesn't have enough rooftops. None of these developments stand a chance to attract the businesses southwest North Dakotans want and need without some sort of settling down of housing and apartment prices.
People are still coming to Dickinson and southwest North Dakota, and there's no end in sight to the growth. Still, many them aren't here to stay.
It's up to the city to find a reasonable and realistic solution to fix that -- and soon. I want people like the man from Idaho and so many others to be able to bring their families to Dickinson and southwest North Dakota. I want their wives to find good jobs alongside of them. I want their kids to be in our school systems. I want them to be a part of a Dickinson community -- not just someone who is passing through.
Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, call him at 701-456-1205, tweet him at monkebusiness and read past features and columns on his blog at monke.areavoices.com.