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Building boom: 2014 was the year of expansion for Dickinson

Press Photo by Dustin Monke These apartments shown Oct. 22 in north Dickinson were part of the many projects used to handle the city’s growth in 2014.

By Nadya Faulx

If 2011 was the year of the oil boom, 2014 could arguably be considered the year of Dickinson’s building boom.

Construction dominated the city’s landscape, impacting everything from businesses to schools and community services. Over the past 12 months, the city saw a number of projects either wrap up or begin, setting the stage for an equally busy 2015.

“This has really been the year of major infrastructure buildout,” Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson said.

Major projects for the city included the opening of its new public works building and adjacent city animal shelter; the completion of an interim bypass connecting Interstate 94 and Highway 22, groundbreaking and construction on a new public safety building north of 21st Street West, and various lift stations and pumping units. All told, there are at least 43 major projects listed, by priority, on Dickinson’s 2014-15 Capital Infrastructure Improvement Plan totaling $407 million, including the highly disputed $7 million 40th Street improvement project.

“We started almost three years ago with planning, and after you do planning, you get into engineering all your projects, bidding them, constructing them,” Johnson said. “We really got into the construction phase big time in the last 12 to 18 months. A lot has come to fruition.”

Plans for the future of Dickinson started in earnest with the city’s 2035 “roadmap” assessing infrastructure and outlining priorities for the city’s growth. Johnson said it gave leaders a good direction of where to go, even if they couldn’t anticipate how quickly.

“I think maybe the one that surprises me today versus three or four years ago is I think Dickinson has grown as fast or likely faster than the plan really predicted,” he said.

The city grew by about 750 acres in 2014, said outgoing community development director Ed Courton, and is eyeing an additional 6,100 acres included in the West Dickinson Area Plan. Now, with an estimated population of anywhere between 25,000 to 30,000 — up from the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of just over 20,000 in 2013 -- and a projected population of almost double that within the decade, Dickinson is in need of that infrastructure more than ever. The expansion of water systems around the city, particularly to the western region — where the new Sanford Health Clinic and new CHI St. Joseph’s Health campus sit across the road from each other, and where Roers’ West Ridge development is poised to spill out over city boundaries -- will mean even more and perhaps faster development in the years to come.

“The next two years are going to be above what we’ve had this year and last year,” said Courton, who joined city staff three-and-a-half years ago and has seen Dickinson through some of its most rapid changes.

He said the implementation and funding of the Capital Improvement Plan this year will help accommodate future development for the next several years.

“That will free up areas in the town that have been placed on hold due to infrastructure capacity issues,” Courton said.

And that will mean growth in other sectors, both public and private.

Months of pent-up demand for development — and for housing, in particular, as rent prices continue to rival those in much larger metropolitan areas — are expected to finally ease next year, as more private projects take off, Courton said.

Already, a number of high-profile developments — including West Ridge, Dickinson Hills and Pinecrest — are underway and are either preparing for construction or awaiting commercial tenants, and several residential subdivisions are set to move forward soon.

“I would anticipate commercial, single-family residential and multi-family apartments are going to see some increase next year,” Courton said. “It will be a very robust year, commercial-wise, and definitely for apartments.”

Commercial real estate featured prominently in 2014, with a dozen or so new businesses opening or being announced, including Paradise Cleaners, Menards and the highly anticipated Buffalo Wild Wings in West Ridge, and next year’s Qdoba, Jimmy John’s and City Brew next to Prairie Hills Mall. Other coffee shops are expected to spring up in north Dickinson, as well, as the American West Plaza building on Villard. Family Fare Supermarkets, which took the place of Dan’s Supermarkets in 2014, is nearing completion on a third location in West Ridge complete with a liquor store, gas station and Starbucks.

More than 430 job openings in the food preparation and serving industry across North Dakota were reported, according to Job Service North Dakota’s Labor Market Information Center, showing an almost 900 percent jump over the same month last year. Dickinson-based customer services manager Mary Urlacher said she anticipates the number of local job openings — and job seekers — will remain steady in the coming year.

Even as some retailers and restaurants faltered in Dickinson’s competitive employment environment — Bonanza and KMart shut their doors, and lunchtime staple McDonalds struggled to staff its lobby — many businesses have adapted to find success in the city’s expanding market, said Cooper Whitman, executive director of the Dickinson Chamber of Commerce.

“Change wasn’t the theme of the year in 2014,” he said. “Maybe ‘adaptation’ would be an apt theme for business in Dickinson.”

Now that the city has brought more infrastructure online — “the boring thing that no one wants to talk about, but without it, nothing else happens,” Whitman said — big developers are finally coming to Dickinson.

“We’re seeing it just like it’s been promised the last couple of years,” he said.

The sudden drop in oil prices, which have fallen 40 percent since June, has shaken many investors and leaders in the Bakken. But Whitman, like Johnson and Courton, said the slowdown likely won’t affect development in Dickinson in the long term.

Whitman said the city has to continue to develop its infrastructure for so it’s ready for “when the oil industry is back at full strength again.”

Businesses aren’t looking to pull away from Dickinson, he said, because they understand that the oil slowdown is just temporary.

“They’re not coming for the peak of an oil boom,” he said. “They’re coming for the sustainable community that we’re building.”

And will continue building, though perhaps at a different pace than before.

Johnson said leaders are cautiously assessing the lower oil prices and what they mean for Dickinson, but the impact remains to be seen.

For now, it looks like 2015 “will be another busy construction year,” he said.

By the numbers

They say numbers don’t lie. A year of growth presented multiple statistics for Dickinson as it expanded. Here is an overview of the city’s counts in 2014.

43 The number of projects — in various stages, from design to construction — that were included in the City of Dickinson’s Capital Infrastructure Improvement Plan.

27 Percent engineering firm KLJ estimates Dickinson’s population will increase over the next five years. In the firm’s latest projection this year, KLJ representatives said the city will need 45,016 housing units by the end of the decade.

360M The estimated price tag on Dakota Prairie Refinery, expected to be operational by the end of the year.

1.2 Percentage unemployment in Stark County in October, it’s lowest all year. North Dakota’s unemployment rate hovered between 2 and 3 percent, while the national rate dipped to a low of 5.8 percent in November.

60K Expected passenger boarding numbers at the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport for the year. The airport surpassed 50,000 annual passengers in November.

5 New all-way stops at intersections across Dickinson, much to the delight to some, and the consternation of others. The stops are interim and the city is investigating permanent options.

26,345 Calls for Dickinson Police service, as of the afternoon of Dec. 16. By the same date, the department had made 1,694 arrests, already ahead of 2013’s total of 1,592. Capt. Dave Wilkie said crime has risen in parallel to the population. Officers haven’t seen much change since 2011, when assault, concealed weapons crimes and domestic violence all began to show upticks, he said.

1985 The previous record year for the enrollment in Dickinson Public Schools. The district beat the old record with 3,521 students enrolled for the start of the 2014-15 school year, compared to 3,360 students enrolled at the height of the last oil boom.

Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207.