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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published September 20 2012

ND oil town mayor sees city go from bust to boom

WILLISTON, N.D. — Williston was writhing from an oil bust when Ward Koeser was first elected mayor of the northwest North Dakota city 18 years ago.

The oil boom gravy days of the late 1970s and early 1980s were displaced by depressed oil prices that spurred businesses to shutter. The city was stuck with a pair of abandoned trailer parks that stood as a testament to the people who left town “about twice as fast as they came,” Koeser said.

Morale in the city near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers had sunk lower than the deepest of dry oil well holes.

“People wanted hope and pride but they were discouraged and devastated by the bust,” Koeser said. “People wanted to believe in the community again.”

Koeser, 62, has seen the city's fortunes swing radically in the years since, with a rebound in oil prices and drilling technology that has thrust North Dakota to the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas. Ninety percent of drilling activity in the state is within a 70-mile radius of Williston, which census figures show is the fastest growing city its size in the country.

Williston's population has doubled in the past decade to more than 25,000 people and the unemployment rate is less than 1 percent. The bulk of the city's residents work in oil-related jobs and the average annual salary has jumped from about $32,000 in 2006 to about $78,000.

With Williston coming full-circle, almost solely on the vacillation of oil, Koeser, said he won't run for mayor when his term expires in two years.

He made the same pronouncement following the 2006 election, saying that would be his final term. But he rethought his position after people in the community asked him to run again.

A year after beating prostate cancer, Koeser said it's time to spend more time with his nine grandchildren, who are scattered from North Dakota to Alaska.

“In 2014, I'll be done — retiring, quitting, resigning, whatever. But in no way am I counting the days,” Koeser told The Associated Press. “I want to do as much as I can to position the city to be the best it can be. And my goal always has been to get somebody younger in the role.”

Koeser was given the North Dakota Petroleum Council's Outstanding Public Service Award on Wednesday. The group represents more than 325 companies working in North Dakota's oil patch.

Ron Ness, president of the council, said Koeser was the right person at the right time to keep the city on an even keel.

“He's been faced with all of these challenges over all of these years and he's had a positive approach to all of this and made Williston a better city,” Ness said.

Koeser — a soft-spoken, barrel-chested telecommunications business owner, former math teacher and military veteran — stepped up to become the Williston's biggest booster when few believed in a bright future for the city.

With the support of his family, prayer and successful completion of a Dale Carnegie self-improvement course, he went door-to-door to more than 2,500 homes asking residents for their vote. It's the same formula that has worked in elections since.

“I had this dream and I very sincerely believed that Williston someday could become the best little city in America,” Koeser said. “Somebody has got to be the best, so why couldn't it be us?”

Selling the city as a place to locate a business or as a destination for tourism or a conference wasn't easy.

“People in the eastern part of the state believed we were too remote, and too far to go to,” Koeser said. “Nothing really special was happening here.”

Any event, however humble, would be touted, the mayor said.

“We would try to find things to celebrate and try to make a big deal of it,” Koeser said.

A resurgence of oil activity beginning at the middle of last decade changed everything. Williston, the state's seventh-most populous city, is now first in taxable sales and purchases, with $791 million recorded during the first quarter of 2012, up 76 percent from the prior year. Help-wanted signs hang in most business.

It's been rewarding as the city's top-elected official, but Koeser, always the optimist, acknowledges it's also “been tough as cobs” at times, especially in recent years with the explosion of oil activity.

The oil boom has made millionaires of many residents in western North Dakota but it also has brought challenges, from increased crime due to an exploding population to traffic and beat-up roads. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new housing construction and infrastructure improvements haven't kept up with the boom.

Koeser now often finds himself taking a deep breath, and saying aloud, “We're going to get through this.”

But he still faces smaller issues, from barking dogs to potholes. His telephone number is listed, and recently an elderly woman called him to gripe that city refuse workers refused to pick up her garbage cans because they were placed too far from the street. Koeser, in his trademark crisp sport coat, dragged the trash cans to the curb himself.

City sanitation workers, like most everyone else in town, already had their hands full with an increased workload.

“The reality now is, good or bad, we're pushed to our limits,” he said. “It's not always going to be this wild and crazy. We're going to get this under control.”

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