'Strength and stability'; Williston's longtime mayor deals with city's growth all the while dealing with his health challenges
WILLISTON -- Two years ago, Williston Mayor Ward Koeser was ready to step down after 16 years and let someone younger take the office.
But supporters who saw the beginnings of North Dakota's oil boom -- with Williston as its epicenter -- convinced him to run again.
"We really needed his strength and stability," said Brad Bekkedahl, vice president of Williston's city commission. "You'll never find a more positive and progressive thinker than Ward Koeser."
While meeting the demands of leading the fastest-growing small city in the country, Koeser was confronted with another challenge: a prostate cancer diagnosis.
Koeser recalls he had a routine doctor's appointment on Valentine's Day 2011 and test results showed that he either had an infection or prostate cancer.
A urologist later confirmed he had cancer and Koeser had surgery at the Mayo Clinic that spring. Later that year, he had 38 radiation treatments in Williston.
Koeser, 62, said he never considered stepping down as mayor and he believes he only missed one city commission meeting for health reasons.
Bekkedahl said city leaders knew what was going on behind the scenes, but most members of the public weren't aware of Koeser's health issues.
"I think he worked harder through that than most people ever realized," said Bekkedahl, who has served with Koeser for 16 years.
Koeser said he didn't hide his cancer from the public, but he didn't announce it because the surgery went so well and he had very few problems with the radiation treatments.
"There were a lot of people that knew," Koeser said. "A lot of people were praying for me."
Koeser believes he's now cancer-free, but a complication from the cancer causes Koeser chronic pain. Doctors have been unable to help, and the condition prevents Koeser from exercising and being as active as he'd like to be.
"Some days I feel pretty good," Koeser said. "And other days I feel fairly rotten."
He's adapted to the pain by working as hard as he can on the days he feels good and not letting his condition run his life. In addition to his city job, Koeser owns Kotana Communications, a Verizon agent that also provides a lot of services to oil industry customers, such as cell site boosters and private radio systems.
Koeser estimates he spends about 30 to 35 hours working a week working for the city. That includes marathon city commission meetings that had to be started earlier so they'd get done at a decent hour. Koeser also aims to grant every media interview request he receives, which can sometimes be several a week, and participates in numerous public appearances and tours of the oil-impacted area.
His wife, Joetta, said she used to say the busy months for her husband were March and October.
"Maybe now all 12 months are busy," she said.
Even though the couple has to plan their vacations between city commission meetings, Joetta said she was 100 percent behind his decision to run again.
"It's stressful, but he still enjoys what he's doing," she said.
Koeser will be honored this week by the North Dakota Petroleum Council for outstanding public service.
"We just want to really acknowledge him for his hard work, his dedication and for keeping a better vision for his community," said Ron Ness, president of the industry group. "He's been a great spokesperson for North Dakota and the Bakken."
Rick Leuthold, chairman of the civil engineering firm Sanderson Stewart who spends a lot of time working with city leaders on development projects, said Koeser assures that everyone is treated fairly.
"The man is just tireless in the way he tries to address all of the needs of absolutely everyone in the community," Leuthold said.
Koeser is known for his positive outlook, but he recalls becoming discouraged about the challenges facing the city about six months ago.
The ditches were full of trash, traffic was intense and plans to expand the sewage treatment plant were hitting some hurdles.
Then Koeser thought about how his city would look in about three years. He saw a younger, more diverse community with new retail stores and restaurants, truck bypass routes to relieve traffic congestion, big-city medical facilities and a premiere recreational center.
"I see a light at the end of this tunnel, and it's a pretty nice light," Koeser said. "Williston is not going to be the same little town of 12,500 that we were. But we can actually be a better town. And that's what excites me."
The Rev. Mike Skor of New Hope Wesleyan Church said Koeser's vision for the community is one of the reasons he decided to move from California to Williston last year.
"I think he's the right man for the right time to lead not just our community but our region," Skor said.
Bekkedahl said he believes community members will rally again to get Koeser to run for another term.
But Koeser is strong in his conviction that the city should have a new leader with a fresh perspective.
"I'm committed to do as much as I can in these two years to make sure the city is well situated with what it's going through with this oil boom," Koeser said. "I plan to work hard and finish strong."