WATFORD CITY - Leaders in this booming town say a $56 million indoor recreation facility and events center is key to keeping working families in the community.
If approved, the project would be funded with city sales taxes and a gross oil production tax loan program designed for critical city infrastructure.
Mayor Brent Sanford said the city is making the case that an indoor pool, event venue for up to 3,000 people, indoor walking track and other amenities are vital to attracting and retaining a workforce in Watford City.
“This is as critical as pipes and streets,” Sanford said. “If you don’t have it all, your community is not whole and you’re not a desirable place to live.”
Watford City, the county seat of the fastest-growing county in the country, doesn’t have enough facilities for the growing numbers of kids involved in hockey, gymnastics and other sports, Sanford said. The community has never had an indoor pool and adults don’t have space for recreation basketball or volleyball. Census estimates recently released put McKenzie County’s 2013 population at 9,314, not including temporary workers, a 46.5 percent increase since 2010.
Gene Veeder, McKenzie County Economic Development director, said community members have listed an indoor recreation center as a priority for years.
“The public has asked us to help occupy adults and youth, especially during the longer winter months,” Veeder said. “That’s one of the rubs you get in a small community that’s so remote, is ‘What am I going to do?’”
The proposed 240,700-square-foot facility would have an indoor pool, two sheets of ice for hockey and skating, three basketball courts, concert or event venue and conference rooms. It would be located east of Watford City adjacent to a new high school that voters overwhelmingly approved last month. The land was donated, Sanford said.
Residents will vote in June on a sales tax measure that would finance the events center, a new hospital and future community projects such as airport improvements, affordable housing and park facilities, Sanford said. Currently Watford City’s sales tax is 1 percent, which expires this year, and voters will decide whether to raise that to a total of 1.5 percent.
If approved, Watford City could borrow up to $20 million for the events center, using sales tax revenue to make the bond payments, Sanford said.
The city also can borrow up to $54 million from the Bank of North Dakota for critical city infrastructure projects, with repayment coming from the city’s share of state oil and gas gross production tax, Sanford said.
Watford City leaders are considering using half of the loan for the events center and the other half for a new sewage treatment plant, new roads, water towers and other infrastructure, Sanford said.
The gross production tax is what oil companies pay to the state in lieu of property taxes on oil and gas wells. Most of Watford City’s sales tax revenue comes from oil and gas activity, which is more heavily concentrated in McKenzie County than anywhere else in North Dakota.
“We’re going to look to leverage those business-based tax inflows and pay for something that residents have wanted for a long time,” Sanford said.
If voters approve the sales tax, the project would need to be presented to the local Roughrider Fund Committee and City Council for final approval, Sanford said.
Local leaders have lobbied for a larger share of the state’s oil tax revenue, and Sanford said they will continue to do so.
Veeder said he expects to hear from detractors who will criticize spending $56 million on an events center. But the center will be a “community-maker,” Veeder said, and getting families to stay in Watford City is critical to supporting the workforce needs.
Williston recently opened a $76 million recreation center, funded primarily through sales tax revenue, which leaders there say they hope will attract more families to town.
“People aren’t just workhorses, they need to have some things to do with their life,” Veeder said. “We think this will let them do that.”