February 2016, Vol. 243, No. 2

Web Exclusive

As Oil Slides, Many Determined to Stay Put in North Dakota

The Williston Basin in North Dakota.

WILLISTON, ND (AP) — Kennedy Mugemuzi is done moving. After leaving Congo to live in Nashville for a few years and then coming to North Dakota for the opportunities of the oil boom, he is among the many staying put in Williston — even though depressed crude prices have spurred an exodus of thousands of drillers and others seeking new prospects elsewhere.

The epicenter of western North Dakota’s oil patch still teems with newcomers like Mugemuzi, who are opting to remain where they are in a still-strong economy instead of starting over somewhere else, or returning to the areas they left behind where jobs and financial stability are harder to come by.

With jobs for the taking in a gold-rush atmosphere, Williston offered a lifeline for people determined to stake an economic foothold, even far from home. Now it’s Mugemuzi and those like him who are staying to raise families and start businesses that may save Williston in return, keeping it from withering like other oil towns after a boom.

“People who are here now are people who want to stay,” said Mugemuzi, 33, who is saving most of what he earns from two full-time jobs to get his three children the college education he lacks. “The economy is still good but some people are leaving. I’m staying because we like it here and the schools are good.”

Williston has seen its fortunes seesaw with oil for almost 65 years. The previous boom began in the late 1970s and went bust a few years later. The more recent boom, fueled by advances in drilling technology, doubled Williston’s population to about 32,000 since 2010.

If not yet a bust, oil  is now in a full-fledged slump. The number of working rigs has halved as crude plunged to about $30 a barrel. For Mayor Howard Klug, who watched Williston strain at times to grow fast enough to keep up, this is a welcome “calming period.”

“It’s been a tough year, but give it a year or two and it will be back — but not as fast, thank God,” Klug said.

While pursuit of new wells has slowed sharply, output has remained steady from the more than 13,000 active wells in the nation’s No. 2 oil-producing state. While many drillers have left, the wells require armies of workers to keep pumping, which provide a foundation for businesses in town. Around Williston, roads still groan with oil traffic and carry the smears of mud picked up from well sites.

Those muddy streets are what gave Wendy Coffman the idea for a commercial cleaning business. Coffman, 44, came three years ago from Idaho, where she had moved from job to job and “wasn’t doing much.” She got a job delivering pizzas and parlayed her earnings into the cleaning business. Black Gold Cleaning LLC, which she owns with a partner, has 10 full-time employees and clients like banks and apartment complexes. “We’re doing very well,” she said. “We’re as busy as we want to be.”

Coffman said she never before dreamed of owning a business.

“If I had a degree, I wouldn’t be cleaning up after other people,” she said. “But there are opportunities here, and for a lot of people, it’s still better than where they came from.”

Despite the oil  slowdown, North Dakota still has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at less than 3%, and more than 13,000 unfilled jobs. At the Job Service office in Williston last month, more than 1,000 jobs were on offer, a number that’s been steady for the last three years, said Cindy Sanford, the site’s manager. Nearly half the openings are for oil field-related jobs and trucking.

“We still have jobs and we are still short of people,” Sanford said.

More than 70 people a day visit the office, many of whom have traveled from across the country.

Mugemuzi still checks in, even though he already has one job detailing cars and another cleaning commercial office buildings. He’d like to replace one of those with a $20-an-hour overnight position stocking shelves at Wal-Mart.

“There are opportunities and I’m a hard worker,” he said. “That helps.”

With job prospects lean at home for someone without a college degree, Emily Siliven, 25, moved from Cincinnati to North Dakota and worked first in the oil patch, maintaining equipment used to pump oil at well sites. She moved on to U-Haul and has been promoted to manager.

“I came out here like everyone else because the money was out here,” she said. “It’s been a struggle to get where I’m at right now. And I plan sticking around because it’s a good, steady job.”

Yvonne Niess, who lived in Williston during the previous boom-bust cycle and watched her father lose his job, doesn’t see it that way. A single mother to two daughters, she came back four years ago from Fargo. She worked first as a flagger on highway construction projects, then at an insurance company. Now, she’s headed to Atlanta for a job as an insurance agent.

“When I came out here I knew I wasn’t going to stay,” said Niess, 47. “My plan was to come here for the boom and leave when it went bust, which it may have.”

By James MacPherson, Associated Press

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