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Bill Marcil Jr., Published May 05 2012

From the publisher: Decision time in Oil Patch

Crossroads. Noun. A point where vital decisions must be made.

North Dakota is at a crossroads.

Last week, I was in western North Dakota. I had been hearing about the area and how it is being affected by oil development. I wanted to see for myself.

The explosion of growth was impressive. Our reporter in the Oil Patch, Amy Dalrymple, is outstanding. She paints beautiful broad strokes with her stories. What I experienced was the petroleum-based paint.

I’ve read a lot about the patch, but I hadn’t read about standing in a five-person line at the Cenex, just to use the bathroom; or grabbing the last Diet Coke or Gatorade because gas stations cannot keep enough in stock.

I saw the sweat on the forehead of a waitress at the Dakota Farms restaurant in Williston – perspiration earned from working like crazy to keep a line of customers happy and fed. I talked with Neil Shipman, publisher of The McKenzie County Farmer, the newspaper in Watford City. He described his record-breaking pace of covering the news, selling papers and advertising – increases The New York Times will never see again.

But the “crossroads” is not for the businesses that are in the patch. They don’t have a choice. Their paths have been determined by the commerce gods. As long as they keep their doors open, customers will come – customers with money in oil-stained hands.

The crossroads is for cities, counties and the state.

I married a Brazilian. Once a year for the past eight years, I have traveled to Brazil to see family. Brazil’s roads and infrastructure are in bad shape. Brazil is an emerging country. I give them a pass. Prosperity is new for them as a country. But North Dakota? We do not get a pass.

To see new businesses in Williston put up basic chain link fences and barbed wire, I wonder: Where was the city planning? I see industrial buildings scattered all over town with no apparent rhyme or reason. West on Highway 23, our rental car was swallowed by huge potholes. Really? This is a major road, and it is in terrible condition. We can’t fix it?

Yes, there is major work being done. I see the figures, but it’s not good enough. The people of the area need more help. It is not on the oil companies’ backs. The state is taking in ever-increasing revenues from a healthy economy. It is time our cities, counties and state stand at our crossroads to lead and manage growth – and manage it better than what I saw.

Not all is doom and gloom. Watford City is doing an exemplary job of trying to manage growth. First International Bank helped turn Main Street into an impressive example of what managed growth can look like. Numbering 1,700 people in the 2010 census, today Watford locals say they are around 7,000, headed to 15,000. Can you imagine if that pace of growth happened to Fargo?

Residents of the patch are being pushed to their limits. Police are understaffed. Teachers and schools are in desperate need of help. And don’t you think we have pushed our teachers too far already? What is our salary rank – 47th? Hospitals are at the brink. The projections are for more growth.

We need to leave overly conservative roots behind and embrace the new prosperity. Our state is at a crossroads. It can be a shining example of what a group of hardworking, honest, intelligent people can do. Our leaders must step up to the plate. Time is not on our side. We need to move swiftly to help communities that are dealing with the impacts of new prosperity.

Marcil is publisher of The Forum.