Over the past several years, the city of Williston has had quite a story to tell. We became the fastest-growing small city in the nation. We tripled both the size of our population and our land mass, and a single word called the “Bakken” propelled this community onto a global stage.
The past 15 months have been a different scenario as crude oil prices have plummeted to record lows. We are seeing layoffs. The restaurant sector we worked so hard to build is now seeing 30 percent reduction in business activity. Hotel occupancy hovers around the 30th percentile. Apartment vacancy rates are reaching upwards of 40 percent.
Our days once spent in the Economic Development Office selling Williston to business investors as the fastest-growing small city in America has been replaced with re-assuring the same investors that Williston still has a future of prosperity.
We have been here before. Based on our experience, if any community is prepared to handle this, it is Williston. We may be down; but we are definitely not out.
Rome wasn’t built in a day; and neither will the city of Williston. The state, city and private businesses have invested billions of dollars in roads, service infrastructure, housing, water and industrial capacity.
We cannot base our success or failure of this community on what we have seen over the past 15 months. In fact, if you analyze statistics from Williston in 2007 compared to Williston in 2015, you would find the growth numbers to be quite impressive. Building permit valuations have increased from $42 million in 2007 to $182 million in 2015; third-quarter sales tax collections have gone from $118 million in 2007 compared to $528 million in 2015; 1,334 businesses and 25,000 jobs have been created since 2007; school enrollment has climbed 64 percent; our unemployment rate hovers around 2.3 percent and there are still quality jobs available.
Along the way, we have built an impressive infrastructure that has caught the attention of globally diversified industries. We have built a premier public recreation facility, a new high school will open this fall and Williston State College has revitalized its campus, plus it offers free tuition to high school graduates from five northwestern North Dakota counties.
Do I believe 2016 is going to be a quiet year? Yes. However, the oil and gas industry, as it has always done in the past, is going to recover from this. We are at a crossroads in developing the future of the city of Williston. We can choose to dwell in the now or we can plan for the future. I for one will choose the latter.
Thank you all for your patience and support. It is up to us to persevere during this time of challenge.
Williston is still open for business!
Shawn Wenko is the executive director of Williston Economic Development.