Story and photos by Rebecca Colnar
The Bakken oilfield’s effect on towns in eastern Montana has been significant economically, whether in new condos and hotels being built, new businesses popping up in towns or increased traffic. RV parks are bursting at the seams, gas stations are full and service employees can be hard to find.
“To describe the economic potential from the Bakken energy development in a few words would be ‘many
opportunities with a few specific challenges’,” says Boe Gregson, project manager/water resource specialist for Western Land Services. “The business growth in eastern Montana has shifted from agriculture to energy in a drastic way. Towns like Glendive, Sidney, Culbertson, Bainsville, and Plentywood have seen exponential growth in their customer demographic.”
Gregson believes that for the business entrepreneur, the potential for success in the energy sector, secondary support businesses, or infrastructure development is with little risk. “To meet the demands of the energy developers, consultants are being imported from Montana communities like Helena, Billings, Miles City, Glasgow, Bozeman, and Great Falls,” he says.
Agriculture, the number-one industry in Montana, is facing challenges from the energy boom. “Traffic is insane, especially when you’re trying to move farm equipment down a very congested road,” notes Jim Steinbeisser, a rancher south of Sidney. “Some folks don’t realize that the steering on our large equipment is very loose so we might sway a few feet one way or the other,” he explains. “We ask that drivers have patience with farmers and their trucks and equipment on the road and don’t cut in too close.”
Employees can be hard to find. Steinbeisser says at certain times of year, such as sugar beet harvest, it’s very difficult to find drivers. “We keep going further and further out of town to find folks, and some of them aren’t as experienced as the drivers we used to be able to get,” Steinbeisser says. “We have found that in some cases, women are taking up the tasks, which as great as they’re very willing to learn and follow instructions well.”
Although the rumor is most agricultural employees have been lured out by high-paying jobs, Steinbeisser said one way their ranch can compete is by providing housing. “Jobs in the oilfields abound, but housing doesn’t. If we provide housing with a ranch or farm job, then we can attract and keep people. Housing can make up for the difference between ag pay and oilfield pay.”
Justin Myhre is a ranch-raised young man who headed to the Bakken a few months ago to make money.
“I grew up on my family ranch, did some outfitting for seven years and then worked for the Keller Ranch for five years. When that job ended, I was talking to a friend who was working in the Bakken, and decided to head up there,” says Myhre, whose wife and three young children have moved into a house in the small town of Custer. Myhre makes the 300-plus mile trek home every two weeks.
“I drive a road grader, so it’s not that different from driving farming equipment,” he explains. He bought a camper, which is at a campground about 40 miles from work. “It’s not too bad. It’s almost like being in a little cow camp. We work long days, but not any longer than I was used to ranching. The good thing was I didn’t have to drag my saddle along,” he chuckles.
Changes coming to Glendive
The town of Glendive, about 52 miles south of Sidney, was a boom town in the 1970s, followed by depression from the 1980s until the Bakken oilfield began developing.
Amy Deines, executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council, says the town has new energy. “We have new business coming in all of the time. A new roundhouse was built for the railroad, so that was a great motivator to get this town going. Last year we had 200 new businesses, and this year I’m sure it will double. Most of the businesses so far have been energy-support types such as those that supply fracking fluid, sand, oilfield pipe and so forth. With those businesses comes the interest for hotels, apartments and houses. We’re expecting retail will follow. I get 15 to 20 calls per day with people looking to move here. There are almost no vacancies or houses for sale at this time.”
Deines says the county is trying to be pro-active. They’re developing a new wastewater treatment plant which will double the capacity of the current one and have the capability to expand if necessary.
“We’re being as prepared as possible, and have looked toward Williston, North Dakota to see what we might have coming up,” she says. “I’m sure there’s going to be something we haven’t thought of coming down the pike, though.”
She notes that even though it’s not a scientific study, “The postman tells me his load of mail has doubled over the past year.”
Jim Mires, an agent for Mountain West Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, says he’s been in Glendive for 12 years, having moved from Glasgow, Mont. in the northeast part of the state. He believes the growth is mostly positive.
“It’s exciting to see the buildings, the new motels. I moved here in 1996 and the Husky Truck Stop was falling apart. I heard in the early 1980s when the energy industry collapsed, people just walked out of their houses, even just leaving food on the table. Now there’s nothing to rent or buy, and all the old places are getting fixed up. This town is looking a lot better. The number of kids in schools is growing again, too.”
He says because of the new growth, in the future his children might have the chance to decide if they want to stay or leave; not be forced to leave because there are no jobs available. Mires has seen an increase in his business, as well, especially in writing policies for people, mainly truckers, from Idaho and Washington state.
Challenges of growth
One challenge of the boom is finding adequate personnel in the high demand for employees.
“When you stop at gas stations, restaurants, and local businesses in the service industry, you may encounter staff from Idaho, Colorado, distant parts of the United States, and even distant parts of the world. You’ll hear accents from Europe, Jamaica, and other parts of the world as staffing issues are challenging for all businesses,” says Gregson. “The local folks have been drawn to the high wages of the energy sector, leaving a void in the service industry to be filled by any worker with the ambition and adventurous spirit to relocate to eastern Montana.”
In this instance, relocating can be one of the most challenging tasks since housing is in low supply.
“The small town of Fairview on the state border with North Dakota has become encircled with makeshift RV areas as workers brave the central plains winters in summertime vacation homes. Another large sector of growth in these areas is home construction, as builders scramble to construct new hotels and housing projects to try and meet the demand,” Gregson explains.
Food might be the best indication of a changing and growing demographic. Food trucks selling a variety of cuisine can be found in all of the towns around the Bakken, and the Farm to Table Food Co-op in Glendive has been seeing an increase in demand for some regional foods.
Bruce Smith, manager of the Co-Op, explains that people from Louisiana and Texas have been coming in, asking for food with which they’re familiar. “You know you have a changing demographic when people show up in a place like Glendive asking for okra and collard greens,” Smith concludes.