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Williston Economic Development

The excitement in Williston is palpable. New infrastructure is going in at last, and long-term business development has found a lucrative niche in this bustling city. In fact, Williston has done such a great job of navigating its boom-time growth that it has become a recognized role model for other cities facing similar situations.

For business and technology developers, now is a great time to join this economy with the support of Williston Economic Development. This resilient community in western North Dakota has worked hard to turn what is said to be the biggest boomtown scenario in modern-day America into a haven for business investment and excellent family living, complete with a new international airport, abundant recreational facilities and much more, landing it a spot on financial news site 24/7 Wall St.’s list of ‘American Top 50 Cities To Live.’

Williston’s location at the center of the Bakken is significant. This is a community that has known both hard times and great times over the years. Today, after almost seven years of planning and a lot of hard work, the seat of Williams County is proud of what it has achieved.

Williston spreads across gargantuan subterranean oil deposits found inside the Bakken Formation. It was named after Henry Bakken, a Tioga, North Dakota farmer on whose land the discovery was originally made. Geologists found the oil trapped inside a dolomite layer wedged between two layers of shale rock and the oil is removed by a chemical process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Natural cracks in the rock formations are split apart using pressurized liquids, allowing for the extraction of the oil and gas beneath. It has made North Dakota the second-largest oil producer in the U.S. and made America the world’s biggest oil giant.

Following the boom of 2009 to 2013, people have been streaming in from everywhere, turning the once small community into a city of more than 35,000 people nearly overnight. Williston was becoming one of the fastest-growing small cities in the country. Thanks to plentiful opportunities and high salaries, millennials are moving here in droves, resulting in a median age of thirty and a healthy workforce.

Even with an unemployment rate far below the national average and an estimated minimum wage of around $15 an hour, there are still more jobs than people here. As work in the field is becoming more sophisticated, remuneration is increasing, driving up commodity and property prices and making for really good business. This is unlikely to end any time soon. Oil deposits are estimated at tens of billions of barrels, making this a supply that should last at least another two to three decades.

As luck would have it, 2014 saw a slight lull in the influx of new arrivals, giving the city a moment, albeit a brief one, to catch its breath. “Since then, we have shifted from a boom to a business model, which is evident from the fact that you’re seeing more families come into this market because there’s a demand for single-family homes. School enrolment and the need for childcare is off the charts, and our birthrates have almost tripled. This shows sustainability and long-term growth,” says Executive Director Shawn Wenko.

Williston Economic Development has been working tirelessly to get the town’s infrastructure up to standard and is succeeding admirably. “We saw a tremendous amount of growth around 2012. It was a challenge to keep up with, and it created a lot of issues in our community. We have spent a lot of time and millions of dollars catching up. Williston is a different place, and we’re ready to rock and roll,” he adds.

In typical Williston fashion, resting on its laurels is not an option, and the city prides itself on exploring alternative energy sources. As the Northern Great Plains, known for rolling durum wheat fields and cattle ranches, are right on Williston’s doorstep, there is a future in wind power. The region forms part of the wind corridor that stretches from Texas to North Dakota and is so promising, that the area it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind energy.’

But it is not just wind with which the area is blessed. The confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers provides ample water for the city’s growing needs and could potentially be harnessed to generate hydroelectric power. Biofuels are another really big deal here, with a top research center settling in to study the region’s cornucopia of seed oil crops like sunflower, safflower, and corn and develop advanced plants for fuels.

When considering all these great changes, it quickly becomes evident how significant the turnaround has been from the area having an agricultural lifestyle to needing more housing than it could ever have imagined possible. Of course, business development is following suit. To make getting here as easy as possible, construction on the $270-million Williston Basin International Airport started in October 2016, and it is set to open in October of 2019, enabling growth and economic advancement in the region.

“This is probably one of the largest projects we have done in the history of Williston, and it was really needed. The old airport was built to handle around ten thousand passengers a year, which is what we do in about a month now,” says Shawn.

The city’s original Sloulin Field International Airport has served it well since 1947. “Once it is decommissioned and the new airport is open, [Sloulin Field] will become the largest redevelopment project in the history of Williston,” he adds. The site will be converted into eight hundred acres of new developable space, with a mixed-use zone that includes living spaces, an outdoor amphitheatre, a convention center, an ice hockey arena, restaurants, retail spaces, and potential space for new hospitals and schools.

“We almost have a blank canvas to build the community, and there’s going to be a big focus on that,” says Shawn, who also sees this development as possibility expanding the city’s current medical and senior living facility choices. “We now have a more sustainable population, with sustainable growth. Adding things like medical facilities is a big deal, and we certainly have the demand for it. Which is why I think we have a lot of people working on it,” he adds.

Locals report a marked increase in the quality of life in the city over the past decade and a half, partly due to a city sales tax that was originally voted into existence by the community in 1991; the Parks and Recreation department also has a separate 1.5 cent sales tax. There is the fantastic Williston Area Recreation Center which prides itself on its family atmosphere with a water park, basketball courts, golf simulator, wave rider, Olympic-sized pool, and other high-quality sports and training facilities. The center is one of the largest of its kind in the Midwest at a whopping 246,000 square feet.

The city also has an impressive selection of around twelve parks for everyone from children and runners to tennis players and dog owners with skate parks, picnic areas, playgrounds and a whole lot more. Spring Lake Park offers welcome sanctuary for those seeking some quiet time, while both an indoor and outdoor ice skating rink beckon those in the mood for some action. A phenomenal number of activities also await at the Safari Trampoline indoor park.

There are numerous schools in Williston, including an adult learning center and the Williston State College (WSC) that offers free tuition across ten counties with two-year transfer programs that lead to associate degrees in either arts or sciences. In addition, Williston’s Public School District opened its new high school in August of 2016. April 10, 2019, also saw the Williston High School job fair where teenagers were invited to learn more about career possibilities in the local construction industry and its related trades. The Williston Herald reported an impressive attendance of around two hundred people, which bodes well for the twenty businesses that attended the fair.

With more people comes a bigger demand for water. The city opened its new, over $100-million wastewater recovery facility in 2017. It can serve 75,000 people, for the moment, and was designed to accommodate upgrades. In the process, the city has gone out of its way to ensure that no matter what the status of the oil and gas industry, the residents of Williston will never have to struggle from a lack of facilities again.

In addition to its other work, Williston Economic Development has set up a way to spread the city’s business news with the help of technology. Up-to-date information on its business sector can be accessed via podcasts on its website where people can listen to firsthand accounts of local business people’s successes. Here, they tell their stories and share their experience of the strong local economy. “I must give my staff recognition for this idea. [In this way] other businesses can hear about our economy from real, live people who are getting it done,” Shawn says. The Williston Wire, an online newsletter with more than 8000 subscribers all over the world, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and is another strong connection between local business and the broader community.

As there is so much work available in the area, it is the community’s quality of life that drives Williston Economic Development to develop the area sustainably. It also proudly contributes to the wellbeing of surrounding, smaller communities. “We want to build a community where, if people want to live here their entire life, they can. That is what I always look at for the development of Williston, North Dakota,” says Shawn. One thing is sure, with the amount of energy being put into the success of this place, it has a whole lot more going for it than just oil production.

August 24, 2019, 5:08 PM EDT

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