Faces of the Boom: N.D. provides math instructor with a solution

Amanda Davis, center, tutors students at Williston State College on Thursday, April 18, 2013. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Amanda Davis was struggling financially as an adjunct professor in Texas when a CNN story caught her attention.

The news story talked about how much money North Dakota has, prompting her to immediately Google “colleges in Williston.”

She learned that Williston State College had an opening for a math instructor, so she applied for the job, along with a position at another college.

Davis, 32, ended up receiving both job offers in one day, but decided Williston was the best place for her.

“Money wasn’t really the thing that drew me up here,” Davis said. “What drew me was the opportunities.”

Now finishing her first year at the college, Davis has more financial stability than she did working as an instructor for Tarrant County College in Texas, a position that did not provide benefits.

Her husband struggled to find steady work in Texas, but immediately found a job in Williston working for Napa Auto Parts.

While Davis moved to North Dakota from across the country, she was not a stranger to the state. Davis was born in Minot but moved in 1988 to Florida with her parents at age 8.

Now back in the north again, Davis is reconnecting with relatives.

“I’m on a homecoming thing,” Davis said.

Davis and her husband initially lived in a campus residence hall, but recently moved into a three-bedroom trailer with another couple from Texas they encouraged to move to North Dakota.

Davis enjoys the additional responsibility she now has as a member of the faculty rather than as an adjunct professor. This semester, she adopted a new textbook for college algebra that is taught with the iPhone and regularly holds tutoring sessions with students.

“I wanted to be somewhere where my skills would be put to use,” Davis said.

Bank of N.D. bringing together smaller lenders for Bakken projects

MINOT, N.D. – Investors and developers interested in helping solve North Dakota’s housing shortage often run into a common problem: how to finance multi-million dollar projects.

Community banks in the state don’t have the ability to finance deals of that magnitude, national lenders don’t have a presence in western North Dakota and out-of-state banks are wary, said Jeff Zarling, organizer of the Bakken Investor Conference being held this week in Minot.

A new program through the Bank of North Dakota is combining resources of community banks to finance projects that none of the individual banks could do alone.

“We’re hoping that is one solution for opening up more commercial lending in western North Dakota,” said Zarling, president of DAWA Solutions Group, a business development firm based in Williston.

The program was one of the topics highlighted Thursday in the Bakken Investor Conference, which attracted more than 200 attendees from around the country and a few foreign countries.

Tom Redmann, commercial loan officer for the Bank of North Dakota, said the state-owned bank has now done two multi-bank loans, known as subparticipation loans. One loan was a small, pilot project and a larger loan involved several banks.

First International Bank, founded in Watford City, was the lead lender to finance the Renaissance Heights apartment development in Williston that’s being developed by Investors Real Estate Trust of Minot.

First International Bank then partnered with the Bank of North Dakota, which backed a significant chunk of the loan but also involved 12 smaller lenders, Redmann said. The total project cost is $63 million and the loan was for $42 million, he said.

One of the participants was Garrison State Bank, a small-town bank that never would have been able to get involved in a Bakken project without partnering with the Bank of North Dakota, said Garrison Senior Vice President Norman Thoreson.

Some banks from eastern North Dakota participated in the program, but Redmann pointed out that none of the banks from the eastern part of the state were represented at the conference.

“The eastern part of the state is fairly convinced that the western part of the state is just going to fall off the side of the planet,” Redmann said. “They’re not too sure that this oil play is for real.”

He added that eastern North Dakota banks are interested in the Bakken, but they need to get more comfortable with it.

National banks such as U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo are primarily staying on the sidelines when it comes to the Bakken, Redmann said.

The Bank of North Dakota has financed a lot of projects in oil country in the past two years, but is starting to worry about being too heavily concentrated in that area and may not be able to jump in as heavily, Redmann said.

Another presenter, Jon Nelson of Hegg Development Group, spoke about how to position major projects to get the attention of Wall Street. Hegg Development, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., expects to break ground on $100 million of development in the Bakken this year, with help from Wall Street financing, Nelson said.

“Wall Street is paying attention to the Bakken,” Nelson said.

The conference continues through today.

USDA home loan limit increased for ND

WILLISTON, N.D. – The USDA home loan limit for North Dakota will increase from $179,000 to $240,000, the USDA Rural Development office announced Wednesday.

Jasper Schneider, state director for USDA Rural Development, said the increase in loan limit reflects the realities of North Dakota’s booming economy and the high valuations of homes.

“It’s a different game here than it is elsewhere,” said Schneider, who announced the increase in limit during an event at the Williston Chamber of Commerce.

The new rate, which will be effective May 1, will allow the federal agency to continue being part of the solution for solving housing shortages in North Dakota, Schneider said.

“The market has just continued to take off, not just in Williston and Williams County, but all over North Dakota,” he said.

The last time the loan limit changed was in 2010. In fiscal year 2012, the USDA housing program provided more than $61 million in financing for more than 500 North Dakota homes.

For more information on USDA’s housing programs, call (701) 530-2037 or visit www.rurdev.usda.gov/nd.

Williston suspends liquor licenses of strip clubs

WILLISTON, N.D. — City commissioners here suspended the liquor licenses of Williston’s two strip clubs, which police say are causing excessive calls for disorderly behavior.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to suspend the license of Heartbreakers for 30 days and suspend the license of Whispers for seven days, both starting at midnight Tuesday.

Williston City Attorney Taylor Olson said the clubs violated city ordinances related to serving intoxicated customers, allowing patrons to take alcohol outside and maintaining an orderly establishment.

The two clubs, which are adjacent to each other on the city’s Main Street, are in the area of downtown Williston where a homicide occurred in March.

However, concern about these clubs violating their liquor licenses began long before that incident, said Police Chief Jim Lokken.

The two bars often are responsible for three to four calls per night to the police, while other bars in town have none or one or two each week, Lokken said.

Olson said she tallied 120 calls for incidents to those bars between January 2012 and this February, with 84 of those calls representing assaults, bar fights or gun incidents. Seven of those 120 calls resulted in criminal charges that were filed, Olson said.

City Commissioner Tate Cymbaluk, who made the motions for suspension, said citizens elected commissioners to maintain a safe community and be responsible with spending.

“I’m satisfied in my mind that for the safety of this community we need to do something. I think something needs to happen and it needs to happen now,” Cymbaluk said. “We need to send a message to this community that we are here to protect them, not necessarily you as the bar owner or the liquor license holder.”

Managers of both establishments denied the allegations, saying employees monitor the door to prevent alcohol from leaving the premises and that employees take care to not overserve patrons.

The recent law banning smoking inside bars has pushed more customers outside, where they can’t be monitored by bouncers, said Jared Holbrook, operations manager for Heartbreakers.

“The rate of crime has came up since then,” Holbrook said. “We’re doing everything that we can to stop it, but we’re not going to go outside and monitor it on the public streets.”

Managers from both bars offered to hire an off-duty Williston police officer to have a presence outside the bars at their expense.

“As long as he’s parked outside and shows a presence, 99 percent of this problem will disappear,” Holbrook said.

Lokken said after the hearing that police officers are not allowed to work for liquor establishments, but the bars could hire private security firms.

Williston police Sgt. Detective Dave Peterson said Heartbreakers, which Holbrook said opened in 2010, causes most of the problems.

Peterson said he’s seen dancers at Heartbreakers pull the faces of patrons into their breasts, which is a violation of a city ordinance.

Peterson said he’s seen video surveillance of a Heartbreakers bouncer pulling a pistol out of his waistband and striking a patron in the head. The bouncer then went outside and fired off a round from that firearm, Peterson said. It was later learned that the firearm was stolen and the man was a convicted felon, Peterson said.

Holbrook said the man was a bouncer who had been fired that day for smoking cigarettes when he was supposed to be working. He asked to return later to have a few drinks.

“We had no idea he armed himself,” said Holbrook, adding that it was his employees who called police.

The night of the shooting, Whispers employees called police about rowdy behavior but were told that officers were busy responding to another call, said Michael Holub, co-manager of Whispers.

Two employees, who are Iraq war veterans, went outside to retrieve firearms to provide protection while they waited for police to arrive, Holub said. Once officers arrived, the assistant manager walked over to show police his weapon and put it away, Holub said.

Peterson said video surveillance shows bouncers carrying firearms in the streets during that incident.

“It is unknown to that officer who these people are with firearms, which produces an extremely dangerous situation for our officers responding down there,” Peterson said.

Whispers has been operating since 1999.

“Until recently, there were no issues on Main Street. Now all of a sudden there are issues on Main Street,” Holub said. “It’s not coming from our place.”

Williston resident Tom Powers, who attended the hearing, said the city has limited resources and shouldn’t be spending an unwarranted amount of resources on these two bars.

“Let them clean it up or leave town,” Powers said.

Charlie Tanner, who retired from the police department after 26 years, said his shift had problems with the strip clubs and began keeping a greater presence there to prevent incidents.

“In my opinion, these bars are open sewers,” Tanner said.

In an interview after the meeting, Holbrook said he was surprised Heartbreakers received a 30-day suspension when the neighboring bar received seven days and had the same allegations.

While many during the meeting said the issues didn’t exist before Heartbreakers opened, Holbrook said, “The answer to that is we opened when the boom started.”

Holbrook said he’ll use the 30 days to renovate the club and regroup with management and staff. He said he welcomes city officials at any time to observe how the bar is operated. Heartbreakers has four to five full-time security employees on site at all times and employees walk female patrons to their cars, Holbrook said.

“We put public safety at highest regard,” he said.

Faces of the Boom: For Minnesota-based contractor, N.D. feels ‘almost like family’

Tony Godlewski, vice president of Shingobee Builders of Minnesota, pictured Wednesday, April 17, 2013, stands in front of an iconic building in Crosby, N.D., the company restored. Photo Special to Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – As a general contractor, Tony Godlewski likes to hear the sound of hammers seven days a week.

But when building activity slowed in his home base of Minnesota, competition for projects became cutthroat and profit margins declined.

“We were all trying to hang on and scrapping for work,” Godlewski said.

Godlewski, senior project manager for Shingobee Builders, decided about three years ago to take a trip to check out North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The company embraced the idea of bidding some work in northwest North Dakota, and the contractor has been active in the Bakken ever since.

Godlewski has an apartment in Williston and travels from his home of St Michael, Minn., every two weeks to oversee construction projects.

“After three years, I still get excited about coming out here,” Godlewski said.

Shingobee Builders, based in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, Minn., is a medium-sized general contractor that operates in a five-state region. The firm has 18 superintendents in charge of building projects and last year seven of them were based in North Dakota, Godlewski said.

The company’s first project in the Bakken was the addition and expansion of St. Luke’s Hospital in Crosby, which the builders finished 10 months early, Godlewski said.

The firm also recently completed the Roosevelt Inn & Suites in Watford City, the McDonald’s restaurant and Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative warehouse in Williston, and the addition and remodeling project for the Western Cooperative Credit Union headquarters in Dickinson.

One of Godlewski’s favorite projects was saving a former bank building that is iconic in downtown Crosby and renovating it into to a four-unit apartment building with a Verizon Wireless retail outlet on the lower level.

Among the firm’s next projects is the public works facility for the city of Dickinson.

Godlewski recently became vice president of the company, but made sure he can continue working in North Dakota. Part of what keeps him coming back to the state is working with the local officials.

“It’s almost like family,” Godlewski said.

UPDATED: Man fires at Williston officers, surrenders after being wounded

Investigators remain on scene Thursday, April 18, 2013, following a shooting in Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — A man here fired at Williston police Thursday afternoon but surrendered to the officers after they shot back and wounded him.

Police responded to 407 W. Broadway in Williston after a woman called 911 at 2:34 p.m. to report that a gunshot had been fired in her basement, said Williston Police Chief Jim Lokken.

As police responded, a subject fired at officers, who called for backup and returned fire.

“We surrounded the house and cleared the neighborhood as best as we could,” Lokken said.

Officers made phone contact with the man, who had been wounded, and a detective was able to talk him out of the house, Lokken said. The man was taken to Mercy Medical Center in Williston with two gunshot wounds, Lokken said.

No other injuries were reported.

Officers from the Williston police, Williams County Sheriff’s Office, North Dakota Highway Patrol
and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation responded to the scene in the residential area near downtown Williston.

The BCI has taken over the case, Lokken said. The man’s name was not released Thursday.

Williston resident Tanner Overland was at his home across the street and a few houses down from where the shooting occurred. He said he heard multiple gunshots and his neighbors were ducking down and hiding.

“It shook the whole house,” Overland said.

Overland, who has lived on West Broadway for two years, said he had never seen the suspect before. Police placed the man, wearing a jean jacket and a DARE shirt, into an ambulance in handcuffs.

The man didn’t appear injured but he had trouble walking, Overland said.

Jason and Kerri Pope, who live down the street, said their 19-year-old daughter was home alone when police told her to leave. The couple returned home to find a trooper on their porch with an AR-15 rifle who told them to either get behind the house or leave, Jason Pope said.

“It’s a little unsettling,” he said. “You really don’t know what to do.”

Their 16-year-old son walks home from school near where the shooting occurred, so they sent the daughter to go pick him up.

“From what I saw, those officers did a really good job of securing the area,” Pope said.

Overland said he was scared when he heard the gunshots but he doesn’t worry about his safety in the community.

“Things are changing but I still feel safe,” Overland said.


Faces of the Boom: Photographer finds niche making rigs her focus

Photographer Renae Mitchell, pictured Friday, April 12, 2013, near Williston, N.D., photographed 65 drilling rigs that Nabors Drilling displays at its office. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – North Dakota’s oil boom is allowing a Fargo woman to make a living doing what she loves.

Renae Mitchell always had a passion for photography and decided to make it her profession in 2010.

Initially, the single mother of two had a tough time making ends meet with a photography business.

Then she decided to showcase some of her work in her hometown of Williston, one of her favorite areas to photograph. One of the images she took for fun that she later added to her portfolio is a silhouette of a drilling rig north of Williston against a sunset.

“The sunsets out here are to die for,” said Mitchell, 41.

She caught the attention of some oil company representatives who were looking for wall decor for their new North Dakota offices.

“That’s when I discovered there was a niche to be had,” Mitchell said.

She built up her portfolio with more oilfield photography and pounded the pavement to find customers.

Nabors Drilling in Williston hired Mitchell to photograph all 65 of the company’s rigs that are operating in North Dakota.

Dolly Ramsey, district training supervisor for Nabors in Williston, said she saw Mitchell’s work during an event and liked the way Mitchell can capture a drilling rig.

“She can bring life to it and make it original and new,” Ramsey said.

Mitchell travels from Fargo to Williston every other week to do work for clients, a 400-mile commute she has grown accustomed to.

Her clients include the North Dakota Petroleum Council and various oil companies, but she also has done work for a bank, a hotel and media publications. She frequently goes to Denver to meet with company representatives and will do her first aerial photography this month.

“I’m going to ride it as long as I can,” she said.

Mitchell said she now makes enough money to pay the bills, have play time with her kids and save money for the future.

“If you’re not making money out here, you’re not thinking hard enough,” she said.

Most companies hire her to photograph rigs or equipment, but Mitchell wishes more would request her to photograph the workers.

“To me, it’s the people that make the difference,” Mitchell said. “I marvel at how hard these people work.”

While the oil boom is providing her opportunities, Mitchell is nostalgic for the Williston she knew as a child. The quiet farm where she grew up, near what locals call the 13-mile corner, now has a truck stop, 200-bed man camp and oil wells nearby.

The road where her father now lives is now busy with oil wells, truck traffic, a gravel pit and a salt water disposal well.

“I had a childhood that in my mind will always be perfect and pristine, but now this totally feeds my adrenaline junkie side,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell owns land near Williston and someday would like to return permanently.

“It will always be home, no matter how much it’s changed,” Mitchell said. “It will always be home to me.”

A photo gallery of Mitchell’s work is available here.


‘I didn’t expect to be homeless in the snow’

Toby Butler of Red Bluff, Calif., walks Sunday, April 14, 2013, in Williston, N.D., after submitting a job application at Walmart. Butler arrived in Williston Saturday night on the Amtrak and didn’t expect to get caught in a snow storm. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Toby Butler was in for a surprise Saturday night when he arrived in Williston on the Amtrak from Red Bluff, Calif.

He got off the train at the beginning of a snow storm with $30 in his pocket and no place to stay. The 24-year-old said he checked the weather about a week before leaving for North Dakota, but he didn’t know about the winter storm until he was an hour away from Williston.

“I didn’t expect to be homeless in the snow,” said Butler, who had never seen much snow before Sunday.

Butler met a taxi driver at the Amtrak station who gave him a free ride to Concordia Lutheran Church, where he stayed for the weekend.

On Sunday, Butler walked around Williston in the snow and wind to submit job applications at Walmart and hotels. He wore layers and a heavy coat, but forgot gloves.

Butler worked as a roofer in California and decided to move to North Dakota to look for work after he separated with his fiancee and no longer had housing. He’s looking for any job in Williston, but eventually would like to work in construction or the oilfield.

Christian Newman of New Orleans, who moved to North Dakota in January, rides his bike after working a shift at the Microtel hotel in Williston, N.D., during a snow storm on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

Christian Newman of New Orleans was also out in the storm Sunday. Newman, who moved to North Dakota in January, rides his bike to work from his camper near downtown Williston to the Microtel hotel.

Newman said his vehicle needs repairs and a roundtrip taxi ride can cost $25 to $30. He saves money by riding his bike.

“Not everyone here works in the oilfield,” Newman said.


Highway deaths have Watford City mayor looking for answers

Brent Sanford, mayor of Watford City, N.D., stands near U.S. Highway 85 on Wednesday, April 10, 2013, in Watford City. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Driving on U.S. Highway 85 between here and Williston is “like taking your life in your hands,” says Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford.

McKenzie County has had nine traffic fatalities so far this year, representing 28 percent of North Dakota’s total of 32 traffic deaths, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

“It’s an appalling figure for a county that has 10,000 people,” Sanford said.

While community members are grateful for upcoming road projects, including the widening of Highway 85, Sanford said he’d like to see the Department of Transportation take steps to improve safety in the short term.

One option Sanford suggests is to reduce the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph until the road is expanded to four lanes.

“We’re in this limbo period. What can we do right now so we don’t lead the state in fatalities next quarter and the quarter after that?” Sanford said.

Mark Nelson, director of the safety division for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said officials take the increasing traffic fatalities seriously.

“What’s happening in McKenzie County and around the state is truly tragic,” Nelson said.

But the Department of Transportation points out that five of the nine victims in McKenzie County were not wearing seatbelts. Two of the four fatalities from January and February were alcohol-related. Testing for March crashes is not yet available.

Other contributing factors to the fatalities were driving too fast for conditions, crossing the centerline and improper turn, the department said.

“A lot of it comes right back down to the choices that people are making in their day-to-day driving,” Nelson said. “We can’t engineer our way out of this problem.”

Other than driving too fast for conditions, excessive speed does not seem to be contributing to the McKenzie County crashes, Nelson said.

Billy Schmidt, who manages Larry’s Trucking in Williston, hauls water up and down Highway 85 eight to 10 times a day. Schmidt, who moved to North Dakota from Arizona more than two years ago, said North Dakota highways are the most dangerous he’s ever seen.

“Everybody blames it on the trucks, but most of the time it’s the pickups,” Schmidt said. “Slow the pickups down. They’re going 80.”

Sanford said he’d like to see a greater law enforcement presence patrolling the highway, but officers often are busy responding to crashes.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol has three troopers graduating in May who will be placed in McKenzie County.

While safety improvements are in the works, that doesn’t help calm drivers’ fears in the short run.

Sanford said Watford City residents call him every day with concerns about highway safety.

“They’re scared to drive to Williston anymore,” Sanford said. “The traffic counts are high and they’re mainly two-lane roads and it’s bumper-to-bumper with trucks. You have zero room for error.”

From 2010 to 2012, western North Dakota saw a 53 percent increase in traffic, compared to a 22 percent increase in traffic statewide. Highway 85 west of Watford City averaged 11,051 vehicles a day in 2012 compared to 2,322 in 2006.

Nelson said the state’s traffic fatality rate follows the same trend as the increase in vehicle miles traveled. In 2008, the state had 1.3 fatalities per 100 million vehicles miles traveled, compared to 2011 state fatality rate of 1.6 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Construction will start this year on a $300 million four-lane highway between Watford City and Williston. The first phase, between Watford City and north of Alexander, will be bid in May and completed this fall, the department said.

A Highway 85 bypass around Watford City also will be bid for construction this summer.

Over the past two years, the department has spent $50 million to add passing and climbing lanes, add turning lanes and access points and realign curves between Williston and Watford City.

The passing lanes have shortened the commute from Williston to Watford City, which previously had been about 1½ hours, Sanford said.

But as crew camps, oilfield facilities and other developments have sprung up along Highway 85, some of those passing lanes are now used as turning lanes, creating traffic hazards, Sanford said.

Legislation providing $720 million for highway and road improvement projects was “fast tracked” and signed by the governor in February to allow projects, including the Highway 85 expansion, to begin as soon as possible. Future projects include a Watford City Highway 23 bypass and an Alexander bypass.

“We’re taking great strides to get the infrastructure in place,” Nelson said.

Faces of the Boom: New director puts passion toward Williston builders group

Jessica Taylor, right, works at the Williston Home Show on Friday, April 5, 2013, in Williston, N.D., during her first day as executive director for the Williston Area Builders Association. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. — Jessica Taylor spent three months trying to find the right job in Williston.

Instead, she found a career.

On Thursday, the 28-year-old from Cincinnati was named executive director of the Williston Area Builders Association.

A day later she was already helping run the Williston Home Show.

Taylor, who moved to North Dakota in December with her fiancé, Jeremy Tankersley, said living in Williston is giving them a chance to be more prosperous.

“There’s so much opportunity for us here,” Taylor said.

Tankersley, a welder, owned a shop in Cincinnati but work there had slowed. After hearing from many people about opportunities for welders in North Dakota, the couple did some research and decided to make the move.

“It’s been an adventure,” Tankersley said.

Tankersley, 25, works 60 or more hours a week as a welder for B&G Roustabout.

The couple live in a camper in a Williston RV park in conditions that are a lot more primitive than what they were used to. This winter, the water often froze and the couple would go without, Taylor said.

They are expecting their first child in August and are trying to find permanent housing before their daughter arrives.

In addition to the challenge of finding a place that’s affordable, they need to find a home that will accept their two miniature dachshunds, but most Williston rental properties don’t accommodate pets.

When Taylor was searching for a job, she said wanted to find an opportunity that would allow her to grow.

The Williston Area Builders Association had been without an executive director since January, so board members quickly put her to work. Taylor spent Friday and Saturday meeting members of the association, recruiting new members and learning how to run next year’s Williston Home Show.

“It’s finally something I can put my passion toward,” Taylor said.