You can go home: Returnees to ND oil boom town here to stay

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Posted: Mar 21, 2015 12:02 PM
You can go home: Returnees to ND oil boom town here to stay

WATFORD CITY, N.D. (AP) — Before oil tanker trucks rumbled down the roads at all hours, this town was so quiet that Erin White rode her horse to a deserted Main Street one night. Back then, this was a dusty hamlet with few prospects for a future.

Like many teens, White didn't expect to be back after college. She and her husband, Lange, settled in eastern Colorado. But when his temporary stint as an airplane mechanic ended, he needed work. White's parents weighed in: There were lots of oil jobs back home.

Within two days, White's husband had one. She found work soon after they returned to her family's ranch 40 miles from town, joining a reverse migration that was unthinkable a decade ago. The discovery of crude oil here has been a powerful population magnet, not just bringing hordes of outsiders to the Bakken but luring back others who've discovered that, yes, they can go home again.

"I love being home on my farm. I love seeing the people I grew up with," says White, a 29-year-old executive assistant for an oil services firm. "We're still kind of wondering if we'll be here forever. Maybe we'll want to go someplace else. But we just don't see it now."

After a decades-long population drain, North Dakota became the fastest growing state in the nation in recent years, expanding by nearly 10 percent in a 50-month period ending last June, according to Census figures. That pace dropped sharply in 2014 to just 2 percent, a slowdown attributed to the lack of housing, not plunging oil prices.

A new wave of oil worker layoffs, though, could reduce the influx of out-of-staters, but those who've come home are confident they've made the right move.

"There are no regrets, no second thoughts," White says. "There are a lot of people who are really committed to the town and don't want to leave."

It's not clear how many people who've moved to North Dakota since the boom are first-timers and how many have come back to families, friends and, they hope, prosperity. Kevin Iverson, manager of the state's Census office, says many returnees are in their 20s and 30s who "really liked the small-town feel of things, but there just weren't the jobs," he says. "That's obviously turned around in a rather dramatic way in the last six or seven years."

The idling of rigs and sinking prices in recent months has changed the landscape, but "I'm not seeing panic," says Mayor Brent Sanford. "I'm not seeing cars heading out of town."

Kenny Liebel is among those happy to be back. After graduating from high school in 2008, he wanted to get away from Watford City. Though he didn't go far — he attended college 135 miles away in Bismarck — he was homesick. And with billions of dollars of oil in the prairie, he wanted in.

Liebel, who works for Nuverra Environmental Solutions, an oil-related waste recycling and disposal company, remembers the thrill of seeing Watford City's skyline the night he returned. "I let out this scream of excitement," he says. "There was all this new construction, the buzz, it's the real deal. ... I knew in my heart I wanted to be a part of it."

Alex Veeder, 24, an elementary school counselor, figured she'd eventually settle in Watford City, but probably later in life.

As a teen, she says, "We always had that get-out-of-town mentality — there's nothing going on around here. We'd say, 'We need to be in a place where there's action.'" But, she adds, "THIS is where it's happening now."

Her sisters joined her. Lindsay, who runs a dance studio for kids, came back from Oregon. And Jessie, a singer-songwriter, returned from Montana.

"We know that it can go away," Veeder says of the oil riches. "Sometimes you think we're building another school (a $50 million high school is set to open in January) and say, 'What if? What if?'... But at some point you have to not think about the 'what if's' and take care of what's going on now."

Bob Strom isn't worried, either, about fluctuating oil prices.

Strom, 34, who came home from South Dakota, works at MBI Energy Services, an oil field services firm. His wife, Laurie, who is expecting their third child, teaches elementary school. His mother lives nearby.

Strom says his return was inspired by conversations with his wife's grandfather, a small-town grocer who'd always regretted not joining with a partner to build a supermarket.

"I didn't want to be a 95-year-old and be thinking I should have taken a little risk," Strom says. "I had an opportunity in front of me. I had to at least try."

Perhaps no one has made a bigger leap than Jason Homiston.

As a vice president at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street giant, he had an office in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Now he's a vice president at MBI in Belfield, population 800.

Don't let size fool you. The oil industry is just as fast-paced, the pressure as intense as high finance, Homiston says. "It's as much hard work as I was doing out there," he adds. "It's fun to be part of something that's changing the country."

"I'm really having a ball," Homiston says, noting that his East Coast friends have "a little bit of envy but I don't think it's enough for them to want to move to North Dakota.'"

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Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at scohen@ap.org.