It’s a lesson that, not surprisingly, cuts across all segments of the oil industry these days and is as old as the Alaska pipeline: There’s always a price with fame, including fracking fame.
With a population that more than doubled since 2006 when the fracking fever gripped North Dakota, the town of Williston’s real estate prices have burst through the roof. Average monthly rents and leases now top those of New York City, making it the most expensive place to live in the country. An 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment will cost you somewhere in the range of $2,100 per month. A 1,400-square-foot plan, spacious in comparison, ranges around $3,500 a month. Add another $500-600 per month if you want it furnished.
For property owners, the influx of workers is a financial boon. Construction is zipping along, giving rise to apartment and condo communities that look more in keeping with a metropolitan center like Los Angeles or New York than an agricultural hub once made famous by a little brick railway station.
That’s not to say that personal safety and living conditions always keeps pace with progress. The influx of thousands of highly paid oil workers to Williston has been followed by increasing reports involving violence and alcohol. Rape stats have spiked more than 40 percent in North Dakota’s oil counties this year. Thefts and property crimes are up as well. Williston’s police department has been forced to reach out to other states in recent years to bolster its force.
For other communities around the country faced with hydraulic fracturing, Williston’s challenges have been a learning experience. Last year we reported a quiet Southern Illinois town that used Williston and Dickenson, N.D. as examples of what they didn’t want to happen to their town. Fairfield, Ill.’s unusual approach of banning nudity within the city has so far kept the couch dancing and “babes buses” off of its streets, but has it prepared its residents for other issues, like rising costs that affect more than the transient workers that will likely be gone in a few years’ time?
The news from Southern Illinois suggests not. As “laptop-toting” oil company representatives have descended on the small town, local residents have found it harder to resist the financial incentives of leasing their land to hydraulic fracturing companies. And that isn’t hard to understand. Since 2000, there has been more than a 200 percent increase in median household income in Williston–all due to the oil industry and the mom-and-pop businesses that have moved into to support its crew. In comparison, Fairfield’s current median income ($31,006) is only slightly better than Williston’s was in 2000. Unemployment in the agricultural hub of Fairfield was 8 percent in August 2013, offering optimum conditions for an industry that promises financial stability to towns that have historically suffered below the national average.
Fairfield may believe it has a finger on the pulse of the types of social “ills” not to import from oil patch counties, but is it prepared to pay the financial costs incurred by supporting an industry with a finite future? Time will tell. There are few trends as iconic to North America than the boom-town legacy that put towns like Williston and states like Alaska on the map. As American history has taught us through the centuries, whether it's launched by the discovery of gold, oil or natural gas, every boom-town phenomenon eventually runs its course.
Target Logistics innovative Bear Paw Lodge for oil workers - Williston, ND. Image courtesy of Target Logistics
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.