Posted 1/05/16 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
It was a hectic year for the Ray and Tioga region. As the oil boom wound down, citizens debated the permitting of a wind farm to be located north of Tioga.
Main Street businesses in Tioga endured one of the largest infrastructure projects the town has seen in generations and area business saw some successes and failures in the midst of it all.
This past year didn’t bring about a bust, but 2015 took the boom out of the oil patch.
Starting the previous summer, oil prices fell from $100 per barrel to less than $50 per barrel by the start of the year. Over the course of the year, rig counts fell from 170 in Dec. 2014 to 61 this month.
By March, the Department of Mineral Resources was reporting 3,000 to 4,000 layoffs as a result of the falling rig counts.
Operators in the Bakken altered their practices to weather the storm. They let the inventory of uncompleted wells climb from 825 in January to nearly 1,000 last month. Companies also pushed to reduce costs, which resulted in a leaner, more efficient oil patch.
As 2015 wore on, traffic decreased and tax revenues fell. This past week, oil prices were around $37 per barrel and analysts do not expect it to climb until late next year. On the plus side, the state still has rigs operating, unlike the bust of the 1980s, and there are still more jobs than people to fill them.
Another energy sector tried to get off the ground in 2015 -- wind.
Beginning in January, Tradewind Energy held a series of public meetings followed by a series of permit applications required to build a 150-megawatt wind farm north of Tioga. The project was initiated by landowners in Lindahl Township who wanted to lease their land.
Opponents argued the wind farm would pollute the night sky and the natural landscape, cause safety issues from flying blades, and create a lot of noise on the prairie.
Supporters said the project would create jobs and tax revenue, and diversify the economy. They also argued against local governments impinging upon the rights of the property owners leasing their land.
Each of several public meetings drew an often tense and adversarial crowd as the company’s applications wound through the permitting process.
The City of Tioga recommended the county deny a conditional use permit for the project, but the townships of Lindahl and Tioga recommended support.
The Williams County Planning and Zoning Commission voted to deny the permit, but the county commission approved the application.
The Public Service Commission approved Tradewinds’ permit in December for construction this spring.
Some businesses changed, some thrived and others closed for good.
At the end of 2014, Alco announced its bankruptcy and the closing of 198 stores, including the one outside Tioga. Shopko in February swooped in to purchase all the old Alco locations in North Dakota. The company held a grand opening of its new Tioga store at the end of March.
Boomtown Babes opened a coffee kiosk in Tioga, after running a successful one in Williston.
The Bucking Buffalo, a bar, steakhouse, and convention center opened in Tioga, despite opposition from other bar owners who argued the town has too many drinking establishments.
The airport also saw the opening of a new fixed based operator, which provides fuel, flight planning, and a variety of other services to pilots, owned by Tioga’s Neset family.
The 42 Grill failed to meet regulatory changes, and was denied an extension of a conditional use permit for a dining room without a foundation, which had been tacked down to meet the onslaught of service needs during the boom.
Meanwhile in Ray, the commission got tired of looking at a large hole on the side of U.S. 2 where the Sky Watch Inn was supposed to have been. The project stalled due to finance issues and still remains incomplete.
Last month, the Ray Commission met with representatives of the project’s owners who assured the town completion will come in 2016.
The slowdown in the oil boom also meant the closing of some businesses. Solar Flare in downtown Tioga closed its doors last month, in part because much of its clientele had left town. Capital Lodge also closed its doors after vacancy rates soared.
Summer of construction
The North Dakota legislature passed an enormous funding bill to support the Bakken’s crumbling infrastructure.
The “Surge Bill,” as it was known, granted over $11 million to Tioga and over $5 million to Ray. While the money was welcome news, a lot of construction projects were crammed into a single summer.
Downtown Tioga was completely ripped up to replace 1950s-era water and sewer lines, repave the roads, and add new sidewalks and decorative lighting. All this was happening at the same time N.D. 40 was torn up to make a third lane.
While businesses welcomed the improvements, they endured a lot of inconveniences, with some reporting a significant hit to their sales.
Along the way, problems and delays arose to push completion dates out. Contractors scrambled to finish up before the freeze hit in November.
Downtown businesses did their best to accommodate their customers’ access while they waited for downtown to open again to traffic.
The hospital was undergoing an expansion, which was funded by mechanisms other than the “surge” funds, started last year. The new clinic included two new ambulance bays, which tied into the city’s improvement of North Main Street.
At the last minute, it was discovered among other problems that the angle of the road wouldn’t accommodate a mobile MRI truck. Compromise was reached between the city and hospital board to complete a fix.
The hospital held a grand opening last month, which was one of the most heavily attended public events of the year.
Ray’s summer projects went a lot smoother, with a large portion of water, sewer, and roadway replaced on the town’s east side, and thoroughfares on Main Street and Church getting shiny-new pavement.
As the year came to a close, the old site of Tioga’s Kick N’ Fit gym and the city’s building department were being gutted for a city hall renovation project.
At the Ray Mall, space is being renovated for a new clinic operated by Northland Community Health Centers. The clinic is expected to open early this year.
Both Ray and Tioga still have surge funds to spend in 2016.
Tragedies and victories
The entire region mourned the loss of three members of the Ray boys basketball team in February. Tanner Garman, Dalen Dorval, and Waylyn McRae were killed in a collision with a semi truck.
Also in February, Wildrose Public Transportation (WPT) was facing a significant funding shortfall, which threatened to shut down the non-profit within a couple months.
While the non-profit managed to keep operating thanks to some donations from individuals and businesses, an accident in April left them without a vehicle. A similar service in Minot provided WPT with a vehicle until they could replace the one lost.
The Tioga Police had some success combatting vandalism. On a regular basis, equipment in the city parks was being damaged or graffitied. In one case, a granite memorial bench was destroyed to the tune of a couple thousand dollars. The incidents became so frequent, the park board was reluctant to buy more equipment.
Bragging about the crimes led police to one juvenile involved. Following that arrest, the number of incidents declined considerably.
Two Tioga Police officers were charged with felonies in January, following an incident the previous summer. Routine weapons training at the landfill resulted in some golfers filing a complaint, claiming they were threatened by the gunfire.
The Divide County District Attorney’s office decided to prosecute the two officers, charging them with felony reckless endangerment. Charges against the officers were later dismissed for one and reduced for the other.
In another case in December, a police administrator was suspended for two weeks without pay following a slur uttered at a meeting. He expressed his regrets over the incident and has since returned to work.
In February, the City of Tioga found itself in hot water over utility rates. To bring water and sewer rates in line with other communities, the city greatly increased the rates. It turned out to be too much too soon for many Tiogans, who saw their bills double in a single month.
The city backed down and reviewed the rates. While future increases are still targeted to meet the ill-fated rates earlier this year, the new rates were easier to swallow.
A more friendly debate erupted over what the new water tower will look like. The Tioga Commission had a number of ideas for what to put on the bulb of the tower when it goes up this coming spring. Rather than make a choice people might not like, the city narrowed the choices down to four and let residents vote on them.
Some residents objected to the proposed logos not having any reference to oil. New logos were drawn up to incorporate the industry and the voting was started all over.
The final logo is the city’s best attempt to make everyone happy. In addition to the Tioga Pirates mascot, the logo identifies the town as North Dakota’s Oil Capital.