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

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

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 considered her high school diploma a one-way ticket out of town. She didn't expect to be back. After college, she and her husband, Lange, settled in the grasslands of eastern Colorado. But when his temporary stint as an airplane mechanic ended, he needed work. White's parents piped up: There are lots of jobs at home. It would be a good time to get in on the oil bonanza.

Within two days, White's husband had a job in the oil business. 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 but the state still preserved its No. 1 ranking.

Growth last year trickled to just 2 percent, a slowdown attributed to the lack of housing, not plummeting oil prices. The layoff of thousands of oil workers, though, in the last few months 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. "No matter what happens we'll be able to find something to do. ...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'd been reluctant to move out of state in the first place.

"A lot of people really liked the small town feel of things, but there just weren't the jobs. They had to leave," he says. "That's obviously turned around in a rather dramatic way in the last six or seven years."

At the same time, some oil counties have lost as much as 15 percent of their senior citizens, Iverson adds. Some have fled because of skyrocketing rents; others have sold their homes for inflated prices due to the housing shortage. That loss has, in part, been the Fargo area's gain as some of the elderly from the oil patch have relocated there, along with young people attracted to low taxes and jobs. (Microsoft has a Fargo campus.)

In this bustling town — where the population could reach 15,000 in a few years, a tenfold increase since the last Census — folks who left years, even decades ago, have returned. They're now cheering the teams they played on as kids and worshipping in the churches they attended with their parents.

Mayor Brent Sanford can quickly tick off their names and occupations: the transplant from the high-powered world of finance in New York City, the utility lineman who'd spent nearly 20 years in Oklahoma, the pharmacist, teachers, government employees, engineers, and of course, oil workers.

It's a reversal of those days "when you grew up here in mourning" knowing that after college, there was little reason to return, Sanford says. As an accountant in Denver, he remembers his 10th high school reunion in 2000 when fewer than five members of his 68-student graduating class lived in the area.

Even in 2004, when he moved home to run his father's car dealership, he says, "you had to buy a business to get yourself a job."

The boom changed all that, and while oil prices have since fallen, "I'm not seeing panic," Sanford says. "I'm not seeing cars heading out of town. Buildings are still going up." And most returnees who entered the oil business, he notes, aren't working on rigs, where the cutbacks have been most dramatic.

Kenny Liebel is among those happy to be home.

After graduating high school in 2008, he considered himself "bigger, badder, better and smarter than everyone else" and eager to leave Watford City. Though he didn't go far — he attended college 135 miles away in Bismarck — he was homesick. And with billions of dollars' worth of oil in the prairie, he wanted in on the action.

"I thought if you miss the bus, you may never be able to get back on," he says.

Liebel, 25, who works for Nuverra Environmental Solutions, an oil-related waste recycling and disposal company, remembers his return. Driving over a hill, he saw Watford City's expanding landscape sprinkled with oil flares that glowed like lightning bugs. "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. I knew I had to be here."

Alex Veeder, 24, figured she'd eventually settle here, though probably later in life. But a teaching job opened up in a neighboring town, then a counselor's position at the local elementary school, where enrollment has mushroomed.

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.'" As it turns out, she adds, "THIS is where it's happening now."

Her sisters also returned. Lindsay came back from Oregon. She now runs a dance studio for kids. And Jessie, a singer-songwriter, left Montana. Her song "Boomtown" pays homage to those who've made a similar journey.

"Jimmy's moved back home," goes one lyric. "He's helping dad cut hay ...

"We almost lost him there. Now he's more alive..."

Their father, Gene, McKenzie County's economic development director, says he never pressured his daughters to return and thinks people are "way better off if they've gone somewhere else first." He remembers what his father once told him: "'I want you to be here because you want to not because it's the only place you have.'"

This summer, the Veeders will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the family's homestead in a town that has witnessed oil booms and busts in the 1950s and the 1980s. With two Veeder sons-in-law and Alex's fiance in the business, they're keenly aware of the idling of oil rigs, layoffs and other turmoil in the industry.

"We know that it can go away," Alex 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. "We're not walking around with our heads saying, 'Oh, what do we do? What do we do?''" he says.

After college, Strom settled in South Dakota, married and had two sons; a third child is due this spring. He worked at an architectural firm in Aberdeen but regularly read his hometown paper online, followed the oil news and before deciding whether to return, called the mayor, his childhood baseball coach.

Strom, 34, came home last May and works at MBI Energy Services, an oil field services firm. His wife, Laurie, teaches elementary school. His mother lives nearby. And he coaches the Oilers, the kids' hockey team he skated on as a boy when it was all hometown kids. Now its roster includes players from Florida, North Carolina, Idaho and Utah.

It wasn't oil itself, Strom says, that called him home. Instead, it was his conversations with his wife's grandfather, a small-town grocer who'd passed up the chance to join a partner and build a supermarket, a decision he regretted all his life.

"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. If I didn't, it would always be in the back of my mind."

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 an executive 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, adding that he's responsible for the livelihoods of almost 2,000 people. "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."

Homiston's father and grandfather were in the energy business, but he carved out a successful 15-year career at Goldman, where he was known as "the North Dakota kid." His brother also relocated from Colorado to launch his own engineering firm in nearby Dickinson.

"I wouldn't change it a bit," says the 43-year-old Homiston. "I'm really having a ball." His East Coast friends, he adds, have "a little bit of envy but I don't think it's enough for them to want to move to North Dakota.'"

James Neether, 45, was perfectly happy in Shawnee, Oklahoma. A former Marine, he'd spent nearly two decades at a power company and though he missed the tranquility of North Dakota, he likely would have stayed put if his sister hadn't called. Her company, Cheetah Services, which rents oil field equipment, needed a manager.

Neether knew about oil's up-and-downs — his father had worked for Texaco during the 1980s bust— so he checked with friends who gave him the thumbs up.

One highlight of returning, he says, is renewing friendships with high school buddies, going walleye fishing and pheasant hunting, just like the old days. "You come back and it was like we were never away," he says. "There's just a bond you make early in life."

His friend, Sanford, the mayor, is accustomed to — but never weary of — seeing one more face from his high school yearbook strolling down Main Street again.

"It's not like it's a big celebration," he says. "But it's kind of comforting. It puts another smile on your face that another one of us is back."


Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at