Watford City is capitalizing on its opportunities

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Posted 9/11/18 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

When North Dakotans think about the Bakken oil boom’s biggest impacts, they typically think about Williston.
Think again.
Think Watford City.
Sure. Williston’s population has grown by somewhere around 14,000 people while Watford City has added only around 6,000.
There’s no doubt Williston has boomed. It started the decade with right around 14,000 people.
Watford City started the decade with just under 1,800 and grew to an estimated 8,000.
In other words, while Williston doubled, Watford quadrupled.
Can you imagine cramming four times as many people into Crosby or Tioga?
Certainly it wouldn’t be easy. And it hasn’t been easy for Williston and Watford, where the number of law enforcement officers has grown exponentially to keep up with rising criminal activity, and countless other serious growing pains have been well-documented.
But Watford City, despite being plagued with some nasty local government dysfunction, has seized on opportunities, too, especially regarding public facilities.
A group of northwestern North Dakota newspaper folks gathered for a meeting in Watford City last week and got a first-hand look at those public facilities.
We were wowed during tours of the new high school and the Rough Rider Center, a multi-purpose sports and recreation facility, and heard amazing stories about McKenzie County Healthcare System’s new medical facility.
As we drove toward the new high school and Rough Rider Center my mind wandered to facilities in Bismarck.
When Bismarck Legacy High School opened its doors in 2015 it was clearly state of the art. Textbooks, reading materials and assignments were all handled electronically through tablets provided to all students. Many traditional classrooms were replaced by collaborative work space. The auditorium, modern design and athletic facilities sent pangs of envy through the other Bismarck schools.
Watford City High School is an updated version of Legacy, with all the fancy features and more. There’s a veranda a level above the cafeteria, looking down on the dining table that look out over the country side. The library is mostly for meetings, because tablets have rendered backpacks full of books obsolete, and the auditorium is large, gorgeous and equipped with all the sound, lighting and other technology of a metropolitan performing arts center.
Down a level is the weight-room-that-doesn’t-quit and a new gymnasium with a couple volleyball/basketball courts. The side door from the gym opens to a plaza that overlooks the bleachers and artificial turf of the football field. Music blasts from speakers on the plaza light standards as the Wolves run through their afternoon practice.
The plaza extends over to the Rough Rider Center. Outside, around the corner, is the baseball field, with more artificial turf and a grandstand circling from first base, around home plate and over to third.
Inside, the Rough Rider Center easily matches up with any facilities you can find in Bismarck.
If you approach through the tunnel from the school, your first stop is a spacious and full service gymnastics center. Progressing through the building you’ll pass the competition swimming pool and water park, into a gym that can seat several thousand for volleyball or basketball, on to the ice arena that features two skating rinks, and over to a multi-purpose room that is equipped with batting cages and turf that can be rolled out for fielding grounders.
And, of course, there’s all the ancillary space from concession stands to locker rooms to public facilities.
None of this would have been possible without oil. Then again, without oil there wouldn’t be the population base to support all of it.
As we toured, our guides provided some other interesting factoids about the facilities and the community:

  • The Watford City Class of 2019 has 103 students, the first class in the modern era to eclipse 100.
  • A new elementary school is next on the development list, because the old elementary is only big enough for half the students and the other half are housed with junior high students at the old high school.
  • Close to 30 percent of the students in Watford City schools are Hispanic.
  • Upward of 600 motel rooms have been built in the community since oil boomed, and most of them are still full.
  • Dozens of new apartment buildings have risen from the ground, and most of the units are filled.
  • The new hospital is helping to attract resident doctors and other providers, including OB and orthopedics.
  • The Rough Rider Center includes a small campus of the University of Mary, where students can take online and interactive college courses.
  • The fastest-growing piece of the educational systems is career and technical education, where workforce training is available for everything from commercial truck driving to emergency medical training, and the students are both young people who attend the school and older people already in the workforce. Which explains why oil companies were eager to participate in funding the development of public facilities.