“Our sewer, roads, law enforcement and housing are out of capacity,” says Mayor E. Ward Koeser. “We have to plan and work like crazy to catch up. But someday we’ll be a better city. It’s good to have problems because of growth, not decay, which was something we struggled with for a long time.”
Housing is scarce. Thousands of new workers live in their cars, campers or sprawling temporary housing complexes known as “man camps.” Some oil companies house workers in hotels — most are booked for months, and there’s new construction all over town. Rentals have skyrocketed. Longtime resident Jerry Schwan, 70, saw his rent quadruple within two weeks. “I would probably be living in my van if my ex-wife didn’t let me live with her,” he says.
Transportation is a challenge. Roads are choked with trucks — pickups, semis, tankers, flatbeds. Expansion is under way for overburdened pipe and rail lines, including the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, stalled in Congress, which would carry crude to Texas refineries.
Controversy over the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is gripping other parts of the country hasn’t taken hold in Williston, where most of the oil wells are below groundwater aquifers. “Most of us natives are not concerned about the fracking process,” says John Liffrig, who grew up in Williston and owns a real estate company here. His confidence in industry safeguards, widely echoed by other locals, reflects a free enterprise attitude that has long permeated the state, from lawmakers to residents.
Longtimers are stunned by the town’s rapid transformation. Some are going along for the wild ride. “It’s the gold rush meets the Twilight Zone,” says El Rancho Hotel and Restaurant owner Cindy Aafedt. “No one wants to work for less than $25 an hour. Everyone comes here with a dream.”
But for others, particularly older residents, the boom has been a nightmare, seen as producing unsustainable growth, too much, too fast. The quality of life they valued in a rural, agriculturally based town where families knew each other by name across generations is gone. Anger and frustration abound over housing prices, crime, traffic, noise, a strained public budget, stressed services and a pervasive atmosphere of tension, transience and greed.