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Havre looks to plan for oil expansion

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, file

A man walks back to his temporary housing unit outside of Williston, N.D. in July 2011. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as "mancamps," now dot the sparse North Dakota landscape. In the wake of the kidnapping and brutal murder of a Montana teacher, law enforcement from across the Northern Plains including portions of Canada gather to prepare for an expected influx of 20,000-30,000 new workers drawn to the booming Bakken oil fields.

At the end of a planning meeting last Friday, a group of local leaders agreed that, while the impacts to Havre of increased energy production all around the city are unknown, the city needs to be ready, and to set up lines of communication with regular updates on what is happening and look into commissioning a study.

Explosive growth from oil and wind energy development in regions around Havre, that have already shown impacts here, is leading political, economic, business and community leaders to look at what can be done to prepare for possible local changes.

A steady increase of impacts

The explosion of growth in the Bakken is mirrored west of Havre in the Shelby region, where wind farm development and increased oil and gas exploration is bringing a smaller boom to that community and the surrounding area, as far west as the Rocky Mountain Front in Glacier County.

Increased oil exploration in the Lewistown area also could bring a similar boom to that region.

Havre has seen people working in the Bakken looking for housing opportunities here, and businesses in the region are supplying goods and services, and expanding their work and businesses both to the east and west.

Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., which hosted last Friday's meeting, said in an interview that the community needs to be ready.

"I think you need to do what you can, but none of us has a crystal ball to, with any degree of accuracy, predict what will happen two or three years from now, " he said.

Tuss added that he can only imagine that the members of the local governments in communities like Sidney and Glendive wish they had anticipated better what was coming and responded proactively instead of reacting to the rapid growth.

Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that her goal is to bring everyone together to plan for possible opportunities — to increase business, or to bring in new businesses to act as staging warehouses for goods going to the Bakken, or to provide housing for oil field workers.

"(I want us to look at) what opportunities are out there, " she said. "I think there are good opportunities. "

Tuss said that, obviously, the community wants to see growth and economic expansion.

"But, at the end of the day, we also want our communities to be livable. … The two are not mutually exclusive, " Tuss said.

Drawbacks to expansion

Not all impacts may be beneficial.

One, related people riding Amtrak, staying two weeks in mancamps in the oil fields, then going home for two weeks, already is happening. Havre Police Chief Kirk Fitch said in an interview that his department has seen an increase in the number of people being removed from the train in Havre, apparently the result of high-spirited young men getting unruly on their way to or from the oil fields.

Fitch did not say the people coming off Amtrak were causing major problems, but he did say if there is a rapid population increase, the number of crimes is likely to go up.

He said when he served as police chief in the city of Maricopa, in Pinal County Arizona, he dealt with 4,000 percent growth, when the city boomed from about 1,500 people to 44,000 a decade later.

That growth, however, was from people looking for lower-priced housing in Maricopa. The age group of people attracted to an oil boom — primarily young, single men — complicates the issue, Fitch said.

"(They are) in the same age group as most of the majority of people who commit most of the crimes, " he said. "So you have that, coupled with people with lots of cash to spend and so forth, and it creates the environment for certain issues to come forward. "

Part of that, he said, was highlighted at a law enforcement conference held in Glasgow in April about the explosive Bakken growth. Organized crime tends to follow an expansion like that, in areas like drug rings and prostitution, he said.

A key finding of the forum was that law enforcement and emergency service providers in all areas need to work cooperatively and collaboratively, including crossing state lines to help each other.

Hill County Sheriff Don Brostrom, who also attended the Glasgow forum, said the Havre area already has a leg up on that, with cooperation happening in this region for decades. Local, state and federal law enforcement already work together closely, across municipal, county and jurisdictional lines, he said.

Trucks rolling through town

In recent interviews, both Brostrom and Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland said the traffic has picked up substantially on U. S. Highway 2, which passes through Havre as 1st Street. This traffic increase is damaging the roads much more quickly.

Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Jim Limbaugh reiterated that at last Friday's planning meeting.

"At 6:30, 7 at night, double-tandems are still rolling, " he said.

Havre does not have much say on the main route the trucks are using. U.S. Highway 2 is maintained by the Department of Transportation, including Havre's 1st Street.

A major upgrade on 1st Street already is complete, and the department is now working on upgrades to the highway between Havre and the Fort Belknap Agency. A project to upgrade the highway from the North Dakota border to Culbertson also is ongoing.

U. S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also is looking at ways to offset impacts using a different agency — the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.

Rehberg attached an amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill directing the department to look at changing traffic patterns and how they are impacting ports of entry into Canada, and how increased traffic might be diverted by changing hours or operations some ports.

"If there's a way to redirect some traffic away from the Bakken area by expanding the hours at the Port of Wild Horse near Havre, Border Patrol should take a careful look at it, " Rehberg said. "It's not necessarily that the Bakken ports of entry are inundated, it's that the roads are seeing increased traffic which is taking a toll. These challenges are fundamentally local in nature, but some smart management decisions on the part of the federal government can act like a pressure valve to reduce some of the strain."

Fixing a housing shortage

All at the meeting agreed that something that needs to be addressed whether the oil boom hits Havre or not is a shortage in housing, which would only increase if people come to the area as a result of energy development.

Havre realtor John Carlson said what development has been happening, primarily single-family homes just outside of Havre or farther out in Hill County, is not meeting the need.

"There's a need for multi-family, not single-family, housing, and in Havre, not out in the county, " he said..

Vandeberg said in the meeting that the housing shortage already is causing problems in recruiting workers and businesses. People moving to Havre, whether for the U. S. Border Patrol, the hospital, the college, or any business, can't find a place to stay.

"Some of those people are staying in hotels for months, " she said.

Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said the problem is far beyond the borders of Havre — there essentially are no rentals available from here to Chester, she said.

Tuss said during the meeting that he doesn't understand why that construction is not already happening, especially since the demand is not specialized, not for low-income people or families or the elderly or people with disabilities.

"I think it's a golden opportunity for the private sector to step in, " Tuss said, adding that he is "a little bit perplexed" why that has not happened.

Havre has prepared for growth

Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, who attended last Friday's meeting, said in an interview that the city already has much in place to deal with expansion.

The city made a major upgrade on its water treatment plant last decade, and is in the process of upgrading its sewer treatment plant now, which could deal with a significant increase in use of the systems.

"We're definitely planning ahead, not so much just for a boom, but also for the future in general, " he said.

Planning for state-level action

Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud said in an interview that the key to dealing with growth, like his area is experiencing, is planning.

Communities need to be taking care of their existing residents, with plans to deal with expected growth. Dealing with unexpected, rapid growth is just an extension of that planning, Bonderud said.

And another need is planning to lobby the Legislature, he added. The communities looking at energy expansion need to work with the state League of City and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties to press the state lawmakers to give more to the communities.

For example, he said, Havre needs to be able to put a tax, perhaps 3 percent, on local lodging. That revenue could go into the city general fund to help it deal with rapid expansion.

The state needs to be sharing more of the oil revenues with the cities, he added. While the development is out of the communities, they are where the impacts occur, Bonderud said.

"Cities in Montana only receive 1 percent of oil and gas tax revenues in Montana, and that's shameful, " he said. "The Legislature has tied the cities' hands and not let us have the ability to react to these impacts. "

Countywide zoning an option

Several at the meeting, and in interviews, said one issue that needs to be looked at is implementing countywide zoning, to regulate what development occurs.

Limbaugh said at the meeting that he doesn't want to see an industrial loading facility set up next to a church.

Hill County Planner and Sanitarian Clay Vincent agreed. People would not want to see a pig farm started next door to their residence, he said.

Solomon agreed during his interview. He doesn't want to see a local mancamp being set up next to family housing in the area.

Northern taking a lead role in planning, training and services

Limbaugh said during last Friday's planning meeting that the Montana University System is planning to deal with providing education to the oil field. Northern and Miles Community College in Miles City will be the leads in that, cataloging what the university system has to offer the Bakken industries for training and to develop new programs targeting the energy industry there.

He also announced a new initiative of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., intended to help the training needs of the energy industry with Northern and Miles Community College the leads in that. The first wave of the initiative includes a $9,500 grant to start the cataloguing available courses.

Limbaugh said an immediate need in the oil fields is the development of short courses in fields like obtaining a commercial driver's license or welding experience, but the businesses also are looking for longer coursework, eventually leading to certificates and degrees.

Darren Pitcher, vice president of student success at Miles Community College, said in an interview that his institution already has been working with the oil industry in the Bakken, developing short courses for training in areas like obtaining a commercial driver's licence.

Limbaugh added during last Friday's meeting that the oil field companies are looking for more than just technical training, also asking for courses in areas like communications, writing and business management.

More than oil field training

John Cech, deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the oil field training is just the start. While training in areas like welding, diesel mechanics and construction — all programs offered by Northern, along with other programs that would tie directly to the need — are the immediate need, the expansion also is creating a need for more housing, teachers, social workers and more.

"Both the goal and the challenge that we have as a state is working to provide the educational opportunities which meet first the immediate goals, which might be a 10-hour (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety class or a 40-hour basics of welding class, but, ultimately, they're going to need more teachers, more civil engineers, more petroleum engineers, " Cech said. "It's going to go all the way up to needs for very highly credentialed people with bachelor's or (master's degrees). "

Carol Lamey, manager of the Havre Job Service-Workforce Center, said that is a growing demand.

"It's not just oil production there, " she said.

Baucus works for more help

Baucus has been pushing for more help to deal with the expansion in the Bakken for much longer than his new education initiative announced last Friday.

He sent a letter to President Barack Obama in January urging the president to help communities deal with the issues involved.

"Residents are being crowded out of affordable housing, stuck in traffic jams and exposed to increasing crime that comes with rapid population growth, " Baucus wrote to Obama. "Workers and their families need places to live, communities need to be safe and given the tools to meet infrastructure needs and businesses deserve to be given the tools to succeed while eliminating unnecessary federal process and regulation.

"In many cases, there are existing federal programs that could potentially help address these needs but the nearest federal office or agency is hundreds of miles away …, " Baucus added.

"I encourage you to unleash every appropriate resource to maximize the opportunity to improve both the economics and security of America by responding to the urgent needs associated with the oil and gas boom in the region which includes eastern Montana, " he wrote to Obama.

Baucus named Northern's Director of University Outreach and Economic Development Tony Preite coordinator of part of his "Call to Action in the Bakken. "

Preite is coordinator of a team designing one-stop-shops where businesses and communities can sort through the different federal programs to see what help from the U. S. government might be available.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he also is working on finding solutions.

"Responsible energy development will increase our energy security and create jobs, but it also presents challenges, like upgrading our infrastructure and social services, " he said this morning. "I am working with folks across the region to find smart, common-sense solutions to these challenges. "

Planning for the, perhaps, unplannable

Last Friday's meeting ended with the initial steps in setting up a network that can respond to rapid growth.

Limbaugh suggested that, first of all, all of the people at the meeting and other officials in the region tied to the issue, set up an email list so all can be quickly notified if any activities they should know about arise.

The group also agreed that periodic updates on issues should be sent out, possibly quarterly or more frequently.

Fitch said he thinks a key is commissioning a study to look at precisely what developments are likely to occur and their impacts. That could help spur development as well as help with planning in general.

If the community had a study completed, it could show that to developers and investors, Fitch said.

"So they have something solid to look at, " he said. "People really believe a study that's done on paper. "


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