1:27am

Thu January 10, 2013
Planet Money

The North Dakota Town Where A One-Bedroom Apartment Rents For $2,100 A Month

Originally published on Thu January 10, 2013 1:04 pm

A plain, one-bedroom apartment in Williston, N.D., rents for $2,100 a month. For this price, you could rent a one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

Williston is not New York City. There are 30,000 residents and one department store. The nearest city is two hours away.

Rents are so high in Williston because the town is in the middle of an oil boom. Unemployment is below 1 percent, and workers are flooding into town.

But the workers, by and large, don't want to stay in Williston. The town is full of men who live hundreds of miles away and who have no intention of moving their families to town.

For Williston to become a place more people want to call home, it's going to need more stuff. More stores. More restaurants. But with high-paying oil jobs easy to come by, it's hard for stores and restaurants to hire employees.

So Williston is in this weird situation. People are reluctant to move here until there are more places like stores and restaurants. But it's hard for those stores to open until there are more people here.

It's a chicken-and-egg problem.

The town's solution is to build a gigantic chicken. Or maybe it's an egg. Actually, its a huge rec center with a golf simulator, batting cages, tennis courts, swimming pools and a lazy river.

That's Williston's solution. Build and build and build. If everything works out, there could be 40,000 oil wells in the area. People will have to stick around to maintain them. Local officials hope those people will settle down and turn Williston into more than a boomtown.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The small town of Williston, North Dakota is booming. Oil workers have flooded the town and are busy drilling the surrounding countryside. But all this growth creates an economic problem and leads to a question: How do you turn a boom town, into a real town.

Here's David Kestenbaum with NPR's Planet Money team.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: To understand, how dramatically things have changed in Williston, meet Rich Vestal. Rich runs a supply company. You want salt, cement? He's your guy. But there was a time here when no one wanted anything.

RICH VESTAL: We didn't have an order for 32 days, straight. Yeah, it was pretty grim.

KESTENBAUM: Now, thanks to new drilling techniques, including fracking, things are very different. Rich has hired workers who come from all over the country. They needed a place to stay, so he bought a house.

VESTAL: Was down by our own warehouse, we paid about $10,000 for it.

KESTENBAUM: Then, bought another one.

VESTAL: Well we bought the house next door from the lady that lived next door. She passed away so we...

KESTENBAUM: Also, one by the cemetery.

VESTAL: And then we wound up - we bought 14 trailer houses up in a trailer park.

KESTENBAUM: There's more.

VESTAL: We bought some condos.

KESTENBAUM: Grand total?

VESTAL: We got 68 now?

KESTENBAUM: You have 68 houses.

VESTAL: Yup.

KESTENBAUM: In a boom town, there is never enough housing. Williston has gone from population 13,000 to 30,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR)

GERARD FEIST: This is a one bedroom, 860 square feet...

KESTENBAUM: This apartment Gerard Feist is showing off, it was just built. It's very basic. You could be anywhere in America. Except for the one thing, the price.

FEIST: The rent on this one bedroom, $2100, I believe, per month.

KESTENBAUM: This is basically New York, Manhattan rate.

FEIST: It is, exactly.

KESTENBAUM: Could we negotiate the rent with you?

FEIST: No, it's non-negotiable.

KESTENBAUM: Outside, it is not Manhattan. There is one department store. And the next town of any size is a two hour drive.

So the question is: Will the workers who've come to town, move here, make this place their real home? Workers like this guy.

JIM WENTLAND: My name is Jim and I drive truck.

KESTENBAUM: Can I just say that's an awesome mustache?

WENTLAND: Oh, thank you. Been growing it for about 20 years now.

KESTENBAUM: Jim Wentland has a huge walrus mustache and a perfectly nice home, it's just 1,000 miles away in Washington State. He works here three weeks at a time, crazy long hours - then rushes home.

Would you think about moving here?

WENTLAND: No. Not going to bring my family up here. Not right now.

KESTENBAUM: What would need to change here?

WENTLAND: Something to do. Family activity-wise, what is there? Couple of movie houses and a bowling alley?

KESTENBAUM: What is there at home?

WENTLAND: Skate parks, they have soccer fields and city parks

KESTENBAUM: At this point, a woman standing nearby, Theresa Labor, chimes in. Williston has that, she says.

THERESA LABOR: We got a city park with a skate park in it right downtown. I don't live here either. But...

WENTLAND: You used to and you left.

(LAUGHTER)

LABOR: Right. And I don't...

KESTENBAUM: Got that on tape?

For Williston to become a place more people want to call home, it's going to need more stuff - more stores, more restaurants. But here, too, there's a problem - finding people to work in those places.

Shawn Wenko with the city's economic development office.

SHAWN WENKO: We have seven-tenths of one percent unemployment rate here.

KESTENBAUM: Wait, what's the unemployment rate?

WENKO: Seven-tenths of one percent.

KESTENBAUM: So that means less than 1-in-100 people are unemployed.

WENKO: Right, correct. If you're not working in western North Dakota, or Williston or Williams County, you're unemployable.

KESTENBAUM: There's a serious labor shortage in town. Even McDonalds, had trouble opening. So Williston is in this weird situation. People are reluctant to move here until there are more places like McDonalds. But it's hard for those stores to open until there are more people here. It's a chicken and egg problem. And the town's solution is to build a gigantic chicken. Or maybe it's an egg.

Actually it's a huge rec center. Again, Shawn Wenko.

WENKO: Workout facilities, you know, golf simulator batting cages. Tennis courts, racquetball courts. Basketball courts, a turf field to a running track. It's got three swimming pools in there.

KESTENBAUM: Three swimming pools?

WENKO: It's got three. It's got Olympic-size swimming pool, a dive pool and a lazy river.

KESTENBAUM: What's that?

WENKO: A kind of an inner tubing style of river.

KESTENBAUM: Indoors here in North Dakota?

WENKO: Indoor is correct.

KESTENBAUM: That's Williston's solution: Build and build and build. If everything works out, there could be 40,000 oil wells in the area. And someone will have to stick around to maintain them.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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