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Florida residents travel to Williston, North Dakota in search of jobs - and economic salvation

8:26 PM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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Barbara Hylick was working as a waitress at an Orlando truck stop when a customer gave her a tip of a different kind.

"A gentleman that worked up here -- a truck driver that worked up here -- told me, 'Barb, you need to come and check out what's going on in Williston.' And I'm like -- what's going on in Williston?"

Located in the northwestern corner of North Dakota, surrounded by remote prairie and treeless bluffs, the town of Williston is ground zero for the new oil boom.

In a state with fewer total residents than the Jacksonville metro area, Williston is now the fastest-growing small city in America. It's the epicenter of a modern day gold rush -- a destination for tens of thousands of workers desperate for jobs. And a town struggling to absorb them all.

"It's just very, very intense," says Mayor Ward Koeser. "We thought it would get busy. But I don't think anybody realized how busy it would get, how many people would actually come."

After years of steady decline, the population of Williston has surged in the last five years, from about 12,000 to roughly 33,000 today. Most expect it will reach 50 or even 60 thousand before the boom ends.

The big attraction is jobs: The city has unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and salaries that defy what most people earning minimum wage can imagine.

"I don't think 'minimum wage' exists in Williston," says Koeser. "Minimum wage here is probably $15 an hour. If you don't pay $15 an hour, you can't get anyone."

VIDEO: Williston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director (and former Naples, Fla. Resident) Marci Seamples discusses Williston salaries

Those kinds of wages have proven a powerful magnet for Floridians who saw their fortunes crushed by the recession and the collapse of the housing market. Such was the case for Ivan Guerrero, a former mortgage broker from Ft. Lauderdale who lost everything in the economic downturn.

Guerrero describes the financial downturn as a "nightmare" for him and his family, where he burned through his entire life savings. "I went through everything, [and] I ended up with nothing. ...Then real problems started -- not having money to pay basic bills."

So, like thousands of others, Guerrero joined the mass migration to northwestern North Dakota, where a vast underground oil reserve called the Bakken is being tapped.

VIDEO: Entrepreneur Scott Gray on chasing the boom

Once inaccessible, trapped in shale rock two miles below the surface, Bakken oil is being extracted by a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process involves shattering the rock with a high-pressure blast of water and sand, and allowing the oil to flow from the broken cracks before being pumped to the surface.

The Bakken's oil reserves are massive, estimated to hold between 4 and 24 billion barrels. And most observers think the supply will last another ten to 20 years.

But keeping up with growth has put incredible strain on Williston. There are lines everywhere. Roads are congested. And nowhere is the pressure more intense than on the supply of available housing. Barbara Hylick says when you make the decision to move here, "you kind of choose to be homeless."

When Hylick first looked for somewhere to live, she found a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment - "equivalent to a studio in Florida" - for which the owners wanted $3,000 a month. "And then I realized something," Hylick says. "That was cheap!"

Barbara Hylick eventually lucked into the basement apartment she shares with her daughter for just $600 a month. But most aren't so fortunate. A space at the Fox Run RV Park just north of Williston goes for $800 a month, plus utilities - and you have to have an RV. Resident skirt the campers with plywood and insulation in an attempt to stave off sub-zero temperatures and keep pipes from freezing. Even then, conditions are crowded and harsh.

Beth Bartel, who manages the park, says some 40-foot trailers house entire families with children. "The wife and the three kids and the husband. All living in a 40-foot trailer. It makes it difficult."

Despite that, every day Bartel turns away people looking for a place to live.

"I've had women come in here plead with me, they have three kids, they're living in a corn field -- no water no, no sewer, no electric. Because there's no vacancies."

Others end up living in so-called man camps. These compounds have sprouted like grain once did on these former farmlands, offering basic room and board to employees who work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Rooms at man camps are typically paid for, at least in part, by the oil companies in need of workers. And for some - particularly the young men who make up the majority of residents - the deal is a great setup.

That's the case for Troy Mickler of Jacksonville, a cook at Bear Paw Lodge. "I make twice the money -- literally twice -- that I could make doing what I do there."

Like most of the other employees here, Troy works 84 hours a week for six weeks in a row, followed by two weeks off. The arrangement allows him to save much of what he makes. "I have no bills here whatsoever. They pay for all of my lodging. They pay for all of my food. God, we eat steaks all the time. We literally eat whatever we want to eat, do whatever we want to do. And I bank 90, 95 percent of what I make, I bank."

Charles Blust from St. Petersburg has put in 5,000 hours in the past year - about two and a half times a normal full-time job. He's made good money. He arrived broke, and saved well over $20,000 during his time in Williston. But he says that focusing just on the money can mislead transplants. "The rate of turnover is a little high because that's all they think about is the money," says Blust. "They come up here and they don't realize the work you have to put into it."

For Blust, 46, the long shifts and bitter weather have proven too grueling. In December, he decided to leave Williston and return home to St. Pete.

"It's cold up here," he admits. "I'm from Florida -- a real hot state. Come up here to frozen tundra -- you know, it's difficult."

First Coast News

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