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Man camp operators will fight back in Williston

WATFORD CITY -- The owner of the largest purveyor of man camp facilities in the oil patch says the company will take Williston to court to protect its right to do business in city jurisdiction.

WATFORD CITY - The owner of the largest purveyor of man camp facilities in the oil patch says the company will take Williston to court to protect its right to do business in city jurisdiction.

Target Logistics must close 911 beds at its Bear Paw Lodge facilities on Williston’s north side if the city approves a second reading of a new ordinance at its April 12 meeting.

The city approved a first reading earlier this month, giving man camps until July to end operations in city jurisdiction and two more months to vacate and clean up the premises. The issue has been bubbling for months, with the city taking steps to shut down man camps in order to shore up its sagging hotel, apartment and housing sectors.

Travis Kelley, regional manager for Target Logistics, said he’s hopeful, but not optimistic, that the 3-2 vote could swing the other way on the upcoming second reading.

If not, his company and others in the man camp business will sue the city to maintain the right to serve the rotational work force that shouldn’t be forced into hotels that don’t serve meals or into apartments they don’t need most of the time, he said.

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“Williston’s overbuilt. That’s undeniable,” he said.

Kelley says the situation is uncomfortable, considering he has a home in Williston and is a former chairman of the Williston Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re being forced to go down this road. Depending on the outcome (of April’s meeting), it seems imminent. We’ve never had to do this before,” Kelley said last week. “Personally, this has been a struggle knowing this day might come, but we feel like it’s the only option open to us.”

Williston Mayor Howard Klug said he’s equally firm in his conviction that the time for temporary housing to be gone from the city has come.

“The message is, this is not the (Alaskan) North Slope. We have plenty of permanent housing here,” said Klug, adding he is willing to compromise, but only in how long  Target Logistics and others have to reclaim the property and remove their units.

“We need to extend that,” he said. Halliburton also has 154 units in city limits, unoccupied now, but used in the past for training and workers.

Klug said Williston has been sued by a temporary housing provider in the past in a case brought by Black Gold Oil Field Services.

“That went to the Supreme Court, and we won that one,” said Klug, pointing out that the man camps are already operating on extended conditional use permits that had expired at the end of 2015.

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Kelley says that the city could see some push back. Three service companies leasing Williston apartments for workers have told his company they’ll start using Target Logistics instead as a show of support.

Target Logistics and 30 other companies and organizations formed an alliance to back a compromise ordinance that would have allowed half the camp beds to operate at an increased per-bed fee of $800. The compromise never reached a vote.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council joined the alliance and director Ron Ness said a potential lawsuit is no surprise.

“They’re pretty upset. The key issue is they’re (city) wrong,” said Ness, explaining the man camps make the industry nimble when it’s time to ramp up the workforce again. “They’ll (hotel, housing investors) have an upswing when the oil industry has an upswing. They’re fighting their own economic opportunity."

Ness said it will be a long swing back to the level of activity that was going on in the patch a year and a half ago.

“My concern is that we’ll go back to 2009 to camper cities instead of professionally run man camps that are safer,” said Ness, adding the rotational worker won’t go away, companies will just find lodging somewhere other than Williston.

Target Logistics was one of the first to set up man camp facilities in the oil patch, eventually operating 4,700 beds at facilities in Stanley, Tioga, Williston, Watford City and Dunn County.

It shuttered its 600-bed Dunn County facility a few months ago and is currently at about 40 percent occupancy, not great numbers considering they’ve had 100 percent capacity in the past, but doable with a reduced staff.

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“We can weather the storm at 40 percent,” Kelley said, referring to a significant slump in oil development that has 32 rigs drilling, a low not seen since the earliest days of Bakken exploration almost a decade ago, and nearly 1,000 wells drilled but left unfracked. “We’re hopeful this will turn around by the end of the year.”

Gage Swearingen, 21, of Boise, Idaho, thought man camps were awful until he lived in Target Logistics camps. He’s now in the company’s Watford City Lodge, a permanent structure with 344 beds about 1 mile from the city center.

Turns out, he had that all wrong and says the staff treats him well, the food is great and he gets to share a bath suite set up with his brother.

He works two weeks on, two off, on a hydraulic fracking crew and he’s exactly the kind of rotational worker to whom the camps cater. His company pays his room and board on contract and he says he’d pull a camper up to the oil patch before he takes an apartment.

“I couldn’t pay that. Here, the company pays for everything,” he said.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said the city’s comfortable with the Watford City Lodge and isn’t advocating that it pull up stakes, but says his town also is in a much different mindset than Williston. He said residential and hotel development lagged years behind.

“We don’t have hundreds of empty apartments with no hope in sight,” said Sanford, adding that apartment developers are hoping that the thousands of cabins and campers outside the city and around the county will be reduced.

That’s difficult to push because there were no rural zoning ordinances and use permits when most of that was thrown up several years ago. With approximately 5,000 cabins and RVs outside town and around the county and no legal process to end their status, it’ll take time for that to transition on its own.

“There will be a day,” Sanford said.

Kelley said his company is looking at options for relocating its facilities if it isn’t successful in court.

“If we have to dismantle it, we’ll try to repurpose it here, as far away from Williston as we can to keep ourselves safe,” he said.

No matter what Williston does, oil development will always depend on workers that follow rigs and frack crews, he said.

“The rotational workforce has been around for decades and decades, and Williston is not going to change that. They’d be better off trying to figure out how to capitalize on the rotational workforce than to try to change them into permanent residents,” Kelley said.

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