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Dickinson mayor on state of the city: 'So far, so good'

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson gives his State of the City speech Monday afternoon at the Elks Lodge in Dickinson while being flanked by, from left to right, City Administrator Shawn Kessel, Dickinson Public Schools Superintendent Doug Sullivan, St. Joseph’s Hospital President and CEO Reed Reyman and Dickinson State University President D.C. Coston.

“So far, so good.” Those are the words Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson used when answering the titular question at the State of the City address Monday afternoon at the Elks Lodge.

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The inaugural event featured a speech from Johnson, who wrapped up the formal presentations, as well as speeches from Dickinson Public School Superintendent Doug Sullivan, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center President and CEO Reed Reyman, and Dickinson State University President D.C. Coston.

Johnson’s primary point was that Dickinson hopes to become the Bakken city of choice.

“The city wishes to attract families and energy-related companies who employ highly skilled and professional workers,” Johnson said. “Our goal is for corporate executives to conclude that Dickinson is where their people want to live.”

With growth comes civic responsibility.

In the next two years, city is facing $162 million in infrastructure improvements needed to support the growth, Johnson said. The improvements were outlined in Dickinson 2035: Roadmap to the Future, the city’s comprehensive plan it spent 18 months preparing with the help of the public through input meetings.

There is $72 million available in city and state funds for immediate infrastructure projects, Johnson said. After using $69 million in loans for the city’s under-construction wastewater treatment facility, there is still a funding gap of $21 million. The city is exploring private and public funding options to fund the rest.

“My fear is that the city will over-leverage its balance sheet and exhaust its financial resources before it completes the needed infrastructure build out, bringing residential and commercial development to a standstill,” Johnson said. “The state of North Dakota must provide much more funding to Dickinson and to other communities in the Bakken area.”

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is helping with four major projects throughout the city, Johnson said. The Interstate 94 Exit 59 reliever route, the State Avenue railroad overpass, the soon-to-be-created Exit 56 exchange, and the corresponding truck route to connect I-94 with state Highway 22 while bypassing Dickinson.

“The city is not sacrificing the community’s quality of place and life for the sake of rapid development,” Johnson said. “The city has introduced higher standards of construction and landscaping for the main traffic corridors entering and exiting the city.”

The city is expanding police and fire services, and has financed the expansion the West River Community Center to promote safety and wellness, Johnson said. The Dickinson Police and Fire departments will be moving into a new public safety center, which is in the design phase, on the northwest side of the city.

There is an additional $100 million in uncommitted projects it is planning for the 2015-16 biennium, pending funding from the state Legislature, Johnson said.

“Given the resources available to us, Dickinson is doing an incredible job managing the oil impact,” Johnson said. “The community is expanding rapidly while managing to maintain its curb appeal and its quality of life.”

Oil development

The oil development in western North Dakota has set the area on track to make it the ninth super-giant oil field in the world to produce more than 1 million barrels each day, Johnson said. The state is predicted to hit that milestone in January.

“By some estimates — and I realize that these are very optimistic estimates — but by some estimates the Bakken may hold 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil,” Johnson said. “At 1 million barrels per day that is 80 years of production.”

Johnson compared Dickinson’s management of its growth due to oil to that of a man falling from a 50-story building who was asked at the 25th floor how it was going — he responded, “So far, so good.”

“Like the man falling from the building, we have a ways to go,” Johnson said.

Population and school growth

Dickinson, like the rest of North Dakota, is growing. The oil boom and growth in the west because of it has helped the state pass the population record set at the 1930 census, Sullivan said.

“We remember those days when the population of North Dakota was declining,” Sullivan said.

The official U.S. Census Bureau population for the state was 672,591 in 2010, but new estimates have it surpassing the 680,000 who lived here before the Great Depression, Sullivan said. Last year’s estimates place more than 699,000 citizens in the state.

“It’s really an exciting time to be in North Dakota and an exciting time to be in the Dickinson Public Schools, but it does present us with some challenges,” Sullivan said.

The school has experienced a large amount of growth and student mobility — students entering and leaving the school system within the school year, Sullivan said.

“We’re seeing some demographic changes and issues that are impacting the school district, but with the number of students that come and leave the school district it does create some very significant challenges,” Sullivan said.

Students entering Dickinson Public Schools are indicative of families — not just oil field workers — moving to the area, creating a population growth of an estimated 9,000 — from 16,000 in the 2000 census to recent estimates of around 25,000 in just a few short years, Johnson said.

“Dickinson is the third-fastest growing small city in the nation,” Johnson said.

He invoked the North Dakota State University study that projected Dickinson will reach a population of 39,000 by 2020 and stabilize at around 42,000 by 2030.

“Dickinson is tracking very close to the NDSU projections,” Johnson said, “and in my view, can expect to grow about 2,000 people per year for the next few years.”

Health care

Because of the growth in the area and a supportive board, Reyman said St. Joseph’s Hospital went from nearly closing in 2009 to building a new facility that will open next year.

“I truly believe that the state of health care right now in the Dickinson area — in the nine-county area that we serve — is in the best shape it’s ever been,” Reyman said.

Many have questioned the size of the new hospital — its critical access status limits it to 25 beds — but its size reflects changes in the American health care system, Reyman said. Overnight stays are saved for serious cases and Reyman said the hospital averages 13 overnight patients.

“Health care is delivered differently,” Reyman said. “I know it doesn’t sit well with my parents. I know it doesn’t sit well with me, because it’s not how we were raised. Hospitals should be big — they should have big towers and lots of beds.”

If the need arises for a larger hospital, Reyman reiterated a point made in previous speeches and interviews that the new hospital is designed for expansion.

Dickinson State

Coston was more than happy to repeat Friday’s news that DSU is once again a fully accredited university, praising its faculty and staff who have supported him since his appointment in 2012.

“I have the opportunity on a daily basis to work elbow-to-elbow with heroes,” Coston said. “We’re working to serve you, the people of this region, and we’ll be doing that for many, many years to come.”

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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