What exactly is a boomtown? Generally speaking, it’s an area where jobs are plentiful and high paying, usually with a higher demand than there are workers to fill the positions, but resources and housing are scarce.
It’s a town like Williston, North Dakota.
Williston is one of many Bakken area towns that is currently thriving from what many have called the largest oil boom in recent North American history.
In the middle of the grips of a recession, a stagnant economy and a poor job market with high unemployment and underemployment rates across much of the country, towns like Williston and others around the Bakken oil deposits offer hope and opportunity to many. So much so, in fact, that people are arriving to Williston in droves, and they’re being hired up as fast as they can get there.
But why Williston and surrounding areas? What’s so special about this region of North Dakota and Montana?
According to a piece that ran last October in Advertising Age:
The current boom, which got going in 2007, is fueled by advances in technology that allow companies to tap a hard-to-get layer of oil encased in rock two miles below the surface known as the “Bakken” formation, which runs from western North Dakota into portions of Montana and Canada. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the region contains up to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil, which the agency characterized as the largest continuous oil accumulation it ever assessed. To get to it, companies don’t drill straight down, but horizontally below the surface, while using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped to free the petroleum from the rock.
Critics say the process — which is being used across the U.S. to unearth oil and natural gas — destroys the environment, potentially contaminating groundwater. The industry has fought back hard against the charges, with the American Petroleum Institute recently hiring Omnicom’s Fleishman-Hillard to create an ad campaign to extend its “Energy from the Shale” informational effort, which is aimed at assuring citizens that fracking “can, and has been done, safely and responsibly.”
The Colbert Report – Anti-frack Attacks
Towns like Williston have had such an influx of men seeking high wages with the oil companies that hotels offer no vacancies, an apartment or rental housing is hard to come by, homes and property for sale are snatched at inflated prices as soon as they’re available on the market, and even a spot to park an RV or trailer can cost up to $100 a night.
Makeshift housing developments, often built by the oil companies, called “man camps” have sprouted up all across the area to help provide a place for workers to stay. The situation is further complicated by a recently proposed RV ban that would leave many, already struggling to find adequate living arrangements, with nowhere else to go.
The amount of people that have journeyed to the Bakkens industry communities in search of their fortunes has so overwhelmed the area that despite the lack of housing there is a high-demand for many retail and service jobs to cater to the masses as well. Since most of the migrants are men that come without their families to work at the oil wells, many of these other jobs remain unfilled. The need for employees far outweighing the number of available workers, typical low-wage positions in retail, waitressing, and fast food offer sign-on bonuses and wages far higher than elsewhere in the country. Many places will higher you immediately as soon as you walk in the door.
Such promises of guaranteed, high paying work in the middle of a recession that is still rocking the rest of the country only further draws more and more hopeful job-seekers to an already overwhelmed area.
And it’s not only the men working in the oil wells that are raking in the big cash, reports of local strippers raking in $2,000 a night from the lonely men of the area has drawn attention from dancers not just around the country, but around the world. It’s hard to imagine a small town in the middle of nowhere where an exotic dancer can earn two to three times as much as a top performer in Las Vegas, but it’s true.
In a recent exclusive by Hollywood Interrupted, we follow one reporter’s journey to Williston, and his down to earth observations about the impact the the “boom” has had on the town and it’s residents. The story features talks with strippers, oil industry workers, locals and newly arrived job seekers, and offers a surprisingly honest look at the phenomenon.
With the influx of workers, so too has come a rise in crime, both violent and drug related, previously unheard of in this once small town, much to the dismay of many long time residents.
So the question remains: is it worth it? The promises of quick money and easy-to-be-had jobs do not come without a price. In the end we wonder if such boomtowns are truly a blessing or a bane. The answer, unfortunately, remains to be seen.