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"The more fracking the more traffic" Leslie Messer, Economic Development Director for the City of Sidney, told members of the Big Sky Economic Development tour group. Sidney is just a few miles from the North Dakota border, but still very much in the heart of the oil field action. Confronted with impossible demands on their infrastructure this much smaller city faces most of the same problems as Williston, North Dakota.
Sidney's biggest problem at the moment is that its sewer lagoon has failed. They have shut access off to RV's, and are now studying what is going to have to be done to address the problem.
The city's garbage output reached 23,000 tons in 2011. The landfill the county built thinking it would last 15 years, is already in need of replacement.
The city's DUI (driving under the influence) citations are 65 percent higher—an indication of the new demands placed on law enforcement. The schools are going out for voter approval of increased levies to build more classrooms, to deal with a 30 percent increase in enrollment.
There has been a 65 percent increase in emergency room visits at the local hospital.
Use of Sidney's quiet library has jumped to 190 people a day, as new residents file in to use the computers, in the attempt to get information and keep in touch.
"We have a lot more social issues, we weren't prepared for," said Messer.
Messer pointed out that while the wages are high – an average of $82,000 annually in Richland County – people are working very hard to get those wages—16 hour days are typical. "It's not an eight to five job," she said.
The opportunity to make such incomes however makes it difficult for businesses like McDonald's in Sidney. Unable to hire the number of employees they need, they closed their lobby and use only the drive-thru. At times orders are taken by some distant employee working via satellite.
There are three grocery stores in the county, and each reported that their sales have increased 85 percent. "They struggle to keep commodities on the shelves," said Messer.
Most of the roads in Richland County are basic farm –to-market roads, never built for the kind of traffic that is now using them. Each well site will require 2200 truckloads of material. "The heavy trucks are punching holes in the roads." Paving needs are greater than the county's budget allows. Messer said that road conditions go to the extremes from being wet and muddy and almost impassable, to dry and dusty. The oil industry "doesn't stop," she said, and they do "step up and fix the roads."
Continental Resources, as a case in point, builds and repairs the roads they need, and then turn them over to the county for maintenance.
"We continue to nurture our relationship with the companies," said Messer. Their response is better than that from the state. Simple things take forever from the state government. A year ago, on a similar tour to the Bakken, Sidney officials pointed out how overwhelmed the local motor vehicle department was in attempting to issue CDL licenses to truck drivers. In order to facilitate the process, employers would haul groups to Billings to take the tests and get licensed, consuming greater time and resources.
A representative of the Governor's office was on that tour and vowed to direct attention to the problem. The DVM finally sent an additional person to staff the local office in March of this year – not as "immediate" as Messer would have hoped.
Another seemingly minor problem, which makes a big difference, is that state employees can't afford to stay over in Sidney. Their per diem allowance is not high enough. It's a problem, among many, that Messer hopes the next state legislature will address.
Entrepreneurs come with ideas, that sometimes don't work out. Messer pointed out that a Billings couple, seeing that truckers had trouble finding places to park, built a truck park in Sidney. But, it turns out that truckers don't want to have to pay to park their trucks, so business was dismal. They are now trying to redirect their facility into serving RV's.
Housing is of course the biggest problem. There are essentially no homes available for occupancy in Sidney, neither to rent or buy. The average rental is $1500, but can range as high as $2500, depending on the number of bedrooms. A home that used to sell for $75,000 is now selling for $275,000 – but there are none for sale.
Land that used to sell for $8,000 an acre, now goes for $25,000 to $55,000.
There are 1700 RVs in Sidney. There are seven new subdivisions being planned. Some people spent the winter in tents, only possible because it was a mild winter. "Their life is hanging on by prayer," said Messer.
Officials discovered that the best way to communicate with these residents regarding health and safety issues, is to attach flyers to canisters of propane available for purchase. Everyone uses propane. They have asked the residents to give their cell phone numbers on an emergency call list, in order to help warn people of pending storms or other issues.
Two new hotels were opened and a third very near to opening. There are no vacancies.
For all their problems, Messer said she agrees with those who say "the best year are ahead of us." Every well in operation creates three permanent jobs, for the long term.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103