State Reportback: North Dakota (Boom & Bust)

My time in North Dakota was meaningful and challenging. Despite having worked incredibly hard on outreach for trainings in the state and having a couple seemingly solid partnerships, North Dakota trainings had the lowest turnout of the program so far. Even though I had cold-called and emailed around thirty potential organizational partners and mailed out dozens of posters, most of the economic or community development folks who I would have expected to support the outreach work were so overwhelmed with other projects and business opportunities that they didn't have time to engage with Youth TCI. The main reason for this was well encapsulated by the CFO of Horizon Resources, a CHS member cooperative in Williston, when he said, “The recession never hit here.” Due to the oil boom in the Bakken Fields in the western half of the state, an economic boom has followed for local businesses and land owners – making most people in the area immune to the immediate impacts of the national high unemployment rate and any other consequences of the economic recession.


Experiencing a modern day boom town was somewhat surreal – driving in from the Northeast, the number of trucks on the highway increased and the kinds of things being advertised on billboards as I got towards turnoff for Williston, “the heart of the North Dakota oil boom.” Some of the ways leading in and out of town were two-lane county roads or state highways that were almost bumper to bumper with trucks while huge machinery was working along both sides of the roadway working to add lanes as fast as possible. I stopped at a Cenex gas station about thirty miles outside of Williston and had to wait in line in my car to use one of the eight gas pumps. Inside the gas station, there were three workers behind the counter managing long lines of people covered in dust and wearing big boots. There were a lot of middle-aged men who I presumed to be oil workers hanging around – a couple had set up shop with their dusty computers at a table in the cafe portion of the gas station and were talking on cell phones and typing in spreadsheets. While in town in Williston, all the youth I saw were actively working in a service industry job, e.g. server at a restaurant. There weren't many cafes or other businesses in which to “hang out” during the day – a drive around town and internet searches for cafes, art galleries, community centers, and other common spaces didn't reveal much. I spent some time at the Daily Addiction Coffee House, which was the only thing I could find – during the few hours I was there, adults comprised the majority of patrons. Relatedly, the places I stopped in western North Dakota had more people than the places I had stopped in other states, but I met and talked with the least people than I had along the circuit this year.

Housing for workers in the Bakken Oil Fields

Housing for workers in the Bakken Oil Fields


Driving out of Williston towards the South took me on another two lane highway undergoing an expansion process and straight into the more active oil fields. The drive was slow, with traffic bumper to bumper on the highway, so I was able to look out across the hills as the sun was setting. This was the most surreal part of my time in North Dakota – there were fires burning at well sites all across the horizon, with a highway packed with cars and machinery on an otherwise desolate landscape. As the road would start heading down a hill towards a town, due to the change in color of the structures, you were able to see the outline of what the town used to be compared to what it looked like now with all the temporary housing set up for migrant field workers. Some of these tiny towns had quadrupled in size around their town center, with entirely new mini-towns of dozens to hundreds of RVs popping up up or down the road from the town centers. While many people are enjoying a great deal of prosperity from the oil boom, it brings along with it some unique social and environmental issues (e.g. human trafficking, radioactive waste). I am especially curious at what the utility of a cooperative model might be to those folks working to address the social problems in the region, while also interested in the role cooperatives might play in the answer to the question many people are asking about Williston and the surrounding areas - “what happens when the oil is gone and this is all over?”


The landscape and communities outside the Bakken Fields were quite different – even though I had driven through North Dakota in the past, I was in awe at the beauty of the many lakes and fields through which I drove. As I was in the state around harvest time, I was able to see a countryside bustling with threshers, trucks cued up to take grain to nearby elevators, and lots of trains rolling alongside the roads. In Fargo, the train tracks cut right through town, and I had to wait to cross the tracks twice during my first hour in town to let a train full of coal and a train carrying oil to pass. A highlight at the beginning of my time in North Dakota was visiting the worker cooperative cafe, Red Raven Espresso Parlor, as outlined in a previous post. The highlight that closed out my circuit in the state was holding a training at the Common Enterprise Development Corporation in Mandan, which is headed by Bill Patrie, though he will be retiring at the end of 2014. Bill was one of three folks who participated in the training and conversation, which resulted in him building a relationship with another attendee interested in developing an art cooperative and was eying a property on the same block as CEDC to rent for it. Through the past few decades, Bill has worked tirelessly to create cooperative and mutual businesses in the state, which has caused him to be the leader of North Dakota's “cooperative renaissance.”

Common Enterprise Development Corporation - site of the Mandan training.

Common Enterprise Development Corporation - site of the Mandan training.


While the North Dakota trainings were a bit of a “bust” in terms of turnout, the rest of the trip was incredibly helpful in knitting together a clearer picture of what is happening in the Upper Midwest – economically and socially. There are clear aspects of North Dakota economy and culture that both distinguish it (e.g. oil boom) and align it (e.g. enduring presence of extractive industry) to the rest of the region. As the Youth TCI continues, opportunities to connect different areas of the region could lead to a stronger connection in North Dakota – especially as the question “what happens once this is all over?” begins to be answered.

Red Raven Espresso Parlor in Fargo, ND - a worker-owned cooperative cafe!

Red Raven Espresso Parlor in Fargo, ND - a worker-owned cooperative cafe!