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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Trip To America’s Fastest Growing Small City

It seems like everyone is going to the oil-rich boomtown of Williston, North Dakota.

Some years back, fewer than 13,000 people lived there, but with a recent oil boom, that number is expected to nearly triple in less than a decade.

Williston has become a magnet for men in particular, after the fracking and horizontal drilling technology enabled North Dakotans to reach the oil beneath them.

Because of the oil surge and the influx of workers, there has been a shortage in housing (and the creation of so-called “man camps”), a drop in unemployment to 1 percent, and an increase in median income, from under $30,000 to over $50,000 a year.

New York Times columnist Gail Colins recently traveled there and was struck by the glut of job openings. As she writes:

Radio ads urged me to embark on a new career as a bank teller, laborer, railroad conductor or cake decorator. The local Walmart has a big sign up, begging passers-by to consider starting their lives anew in retail sales. The Bakken Region Recruiter lists openings in truck driving, winch operating and canal maintenance work, along with ads for a floral designer, bartender, public defender, loan officer, addiction counselor and sports reporter. All in an area where the big city has a population of around 16,000.

Stephen Rodrick, contributing editor at Men’s Journal, wanted to see what life was like for the men who drove hundreds of miles through the night in hopes of finding a job to save their home from foreclosure. He reports:

Picture a small town far off the interstate. Everyone knows your name. At red lights, you wave at folks. There are a couple of diners, some gas stations, and an Applebee’s for special occasions.

Now force-feed 10,000 to 15,000 new people into that town’s piehole. You’re in modern-day Williston. On my first day, I pop into the McDonald’s to order some McNuggets, and my number is 067. They’re up to 991. Outside, the drive-in traffic backs into the road. It is 4 pm on a Sunday. I look around, and it’s like Port Authority on Christmas Eve – families sit and wait patiently, their suitcases piled at their feet. I buy some supplies at the Wal-Mart, and it’s retail Thunderdome. Tattooed guys are snatching microwaves off pallets. The toddler in front of me hurls fruit cocktail at me for the 45 minutes I wait to check out.


  • Stephen Rodrick, contributing editor at Men’s Journal

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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