Eastern ND helping grow the westGRAND FORKS — The combination of oil money and surging population is rapidly reshaping western North Dakota, but even firms from the eastern part of the state are providing plans, the labor and the literal building blocks of the region’s new infrastructure.
By: Christopher Bjorke , The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — The combination of oil money and surging population is rapidly reshaping western North Dakota, but even firms from the eastern part of the state are providing plans, the labor and the literal building blocks of the region’s new infrastructure.
“The sky’s the limit, if you can find the people and have the money to do it,” said Ron Rieger, an owner of RBB Electric in Grand Forks, which has been installing electrical and data lines for companies and municipalities in the Oil Patch.
Regional companies have a big stake in the oil boom, particularly those that can design and build the roads, schools, hospitals and other things necessary to accommodate the frantic growth.
Companies that had a presence in the region have an edge on new arrivals. Others commute to and from the region. According to Rieger, there is a steady trade among contractors on new leads on available housing.
“The No. 1 challenge is housing,” he said. “The No. 2 challenge is finding somewhere to eat.”
Many companies such as RBB have had to rent, buy or build worker housing in the Oil Patch or reserve blocks of hotel rooms indefinitely. Other companies have renovated Quonset huts, arranged room in man camps or booked rooms in assisted living facilities.
Rieger often makes the six-hour drive from Grand Forks to Williston and back in one day to check on projects in the west, where about a fifth of his office’s work now happens. Heading west past the airport on U.S. Highway 2, the draw of the Bakken is evident in the amount of trucks and equipment heading west, he said.
Also traveling west are pieces of future schools, office buildings, hospitals and other infrastructure for western towns.
“We do a lot of the work for the companies that are going to be here after the boom is done,” said Mike Mortensen, regional sales manager for Wells Concrete. The company makes precast concrete pieces in Grand Forks and ships them to construction projects in the west, where around 60 percent of its business now goes, compared with about 15 percent three years ago.
Mortensen said it would be difficult for Wells to build a permanent presence in the west.
“To build a precast concrete plant out there wouldn’t make sense without having the workers out there to work in it,” he said.
Forum Communications, which owns the Herald, also recently named a reporter, Amy Dalrymple, to cover the Oil Patch from Williston as part of its new Grand Forks-based news service.
[b]Experience matters [/b]
One factor fueling the rush on the Bakken has been the downturn of building activity in other places. Construction, engineering and architecture companies have moved in, but those with roots in the area have had an easier time, said Alan Dostert, president of EAPC, a Grand Forks-based company that opened offices in Minot five years ago and in Williston last summer.
“Instead of joining the wave, being there when the wave hit made a lot of difference,” he said. “When the flood hit Minot, we were boots-in-the-street immediately.”
Grand Forks-based Home of Economy has had a store in Williston since 1964, and its business there has tripled in the past three years, said company president Wade Pearson. Now is a good time to be there, but it comes with its own challenges — keeping inventory in stock when there is a spike in demand for certain items such as fire-resistant clothing and making sure employee compensation keeps up with the cost of living and oil field wages.
“Every day is something new, and you can’t predict what’s happening,” Pearson said.
For firms such as EAPC, recruiting trained professionals to live in the Oil Patch can be a challenge.
Some towns in the area have doubled in five years and are poised to double again, something that provides great opportunities for ambitious professionals, said David Johnson, operations manager in Williston and Watford City, N.D., for Grand Forks-based environmental and engineering firm AE2S.
A Watford City native, he said the challenges of the boom are sometimes overstated.
“It’s a great place to build a resume right now,” he said. “You’re going to get a wide variety of experience in a short period of time.”
[b]300 miles away [/b]
Some other Grand Forks companies are enjoying the benefits of the boom.
Brent Seifert, president of charter plane company GFK Flight Support, said demand for flights to the west has grown so much that he started www.FlyBakken.com, a website where people can arrange to share flights west.
Facilities for aircraft are in such short supply in Williston that oil companies and other national firms reposition their planes in Grand Forks for hangar space and maintenance services, then fly west when they need them.
“Which is surprising, because we’re 300 miles away,” said Seifert, who manages 50 planes for other owners and is adding more.
The connections between east and west are something local leadership has cultivated, said Barry Wilfahrt, president of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. He accompanied a delegation of Grand Forks business and community leaders to western towns in 2010 and set up visits by Bakken-area leaders to Grand Forks.
The Chamber is also developing a Craigslist-style website for companies to share information on housing, transportation and other keys to working in the west.
He said the opportunities found in the Bakken are the payoff from earlier work by area businesses.
“From a Chamber perspective, them doing business out there is bringing money back to Grand Forks,” Wilfahrt said.
Bjorke is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.