North Dakota boom town draws interest from local workers and businesses

Here’s a preview of a story that will appear in the July 14-27 print issue of the Business Times. Read the paper or check back online for more details.

For people who’ve lived through the booms and busts of energy development in Western Colorado, the scenario sounds all too familiar. A small city experiences a dramatic increase in high-paying jobs. The unemployment rate drops as workers flood to energy jobs. Opportunities abound for businesses that build and sell houses, broker mortgages and provide basic services for the influx of people.

The scenario isn’t a snapshot from four years ago in Mesa County, but a current picture of what’s happening in perhaps the biggest boom town in the United States. Even workers and businesses from the Grand Valley are headed to Williston, N.D., where oil extraction near the Canadian border has the town welcoming workers even as it faces the challenges of a growing work force.

The situation provides opportunities for energy workers who formerly worked in the natural gas fields in the Piceance Basin of Western Colorado. For the nearly one in 10 workers looking for jobs in Mesa County, Williston could offer an oasis in the desert of a soft national economy.

The situation also provides optimism for Grand Valley companies that can capitalize on the energy boom. They include Senergy Builders, FCI Constructors and Envoy Mortgage.

The estimated population of Williston in 2009 was a little more than 13,000—smaller than Montrose. But that number is likely to grow as long as energy companies can sell the oil they produce.

Darin Carei, owner of Senergy Builders in Grand Junction, said he’s involved in a project to build 40 homes in Williston and works there two weeks out of each month. Carei is working with Ted Martin, former owner of Powderhorn Ski Resort.

“It’s just a boom town,” Carei said, adding the atmosphere reminds him of the oil shale boom days of the 1980s in the Grand Valley. “As soon as we landed, it was like,’Wow.’”

Carei said a local newspaper recently printed 12 pages of help-wanted ads.

“It’s the fastest growing town in America,” said Lonnie Knob, branch manager of Envoy Mortgage in Grand Junction, who plans to open a branch office in Williston. “My potential to be up there is once a month.”

Major Mortgage also plans to open a branch office in Williston.

“I’ll be heading up there in late July,” said Ryar Hayward, president of Major Mortgage in Grand Junction.

The Bakken shale formation promises to provide a healthy supply of oil for at least 15 years, Hayward said, and he anticipates the oil boom could cover that period of time.

Major Mortgage plans to hire people who already live in Williston to help establish a long-term local culture at the office.

U.S. Census data indicates the median home sales price in Williston in 2009 was about $102,000, with a median household income of about $52,000.