|Wade VanEvery Sidney Chamber of Commerce|
Part 2 of 2
By Darryl L. Flowers
According to Leslie Messer, Executive Director of Richland County Economic Development, one of the issues in the county has been how to reach out to the growing community of oil patch workers. Since the workers often live in camping trailers, it has been hard to get to know the workers’ names and exact locations. This can complicate matters when, for instance, an oil field worker is in need of emergency medical care.
Enter area churches.
The houses of worship in the county have joined together to invite the new members of the community to a weekly “fellowship.” The churches take turns hosting the dinners. “It gives the workers an opportunity to get out of their temporary housing and interact with the members of our community.” During the fellowships, the oil workers are encouraged to fill out forms with their names, phone numbers and the exact location of their home. “We’ve found that all of these workers have cell phones, so with this information our emergency services are able to respond in a timely manner.”
When the community first began the program, they debated as how to best contact the workers. Realizing that almost all of the workers’ temporary housing used propane tanks for heating and cooking, the community turned to advertising… on the propane tanks. Each month new adhesive flyers are printed with updates as to the locations of the church fellowships along with other community related news.
In Sidney, even the local library is straining to meet the demand. Many of the oil workers rely on the internet to communicate with their families. As a result, the Sidney library has seen their hours grow to 160-170 per month while the number of computer users in the same period has risen to 800.
According to Messer, as well as industry statistics, local communities can count on three permanent jobs for each oil well put into commercial production. That puts long term pressure on the local real estate market. She advised anyone who has plans to move to, or expand in an area that might experience an energy boom in the future to make plans to buy property now, or to at least enter into a purchase option to lock in a price before the rush. “In Richland County, land prices have quintupled.”
Don Steppler, Richland County Commissioner, said that the county had reached out to the oil companies to find out where they would be drilling. “We wanted to get out ahead of them and concentrate on those areas for things such as road maintenance.” But, according to Steppler, the companies were tight-lipped about their plans. (The Sun Times weekly publishes all the approvals for drilling locations across the state.)
Steppler went on to say that the rush to develop the Richland County oil resources has put a strain on the local volunteer ambulance service. While saying that the volunteer service had done an exemplary job of meeting the added load, at some point the community might be forced to add a paid ambulance and staff.
Despite the strains faced by Richland County, Steppler seemed miffed by the portrayal of oil field workers in the media. “These people are not ‘oil field trash’,” the commissioner said emphatically. “These people… they are your neighbors.”
Steppler next related a story about someone from another state running into eight men… all neighbors of his, at a local restaurant. “These workers have homes, wives and husbands, children. They are a part of their community back home.”
The commissioner also described an often unreported effect of the oil boom – the shortage of gravel. Gravel is at a premium for road building to the drill sites and is in need to road repairs. “Gravel from Montana is now being shipped to the Twin Cities in Minnesota for construction.”
Paul Finnicum, Chairman of the Culbertson School Board detailed the effect of the growing population on the Culbertson Elementary School at the start of the last school year, “We expected 88 new kids at the Elementary School, but when we began the year we ended up with 123.”
Compared to Montana, according to Leslie Messer, North Dakota has embraced the exploration of oil and gas “totally”. She added that North Dakota had allocated money to the local governments for housing and for senior citizens. Montana’s eastern neighbor
Wade VanEvery, Executive Director of the Sidney Chamber of Commerce, said the influx of oil business had a profound effect on the Chamber. “The Sidney Chamber of Commerce has seen a 52% increase in visitors to the office, while the town’s website traffic has grown 54%. The Chamber has grown to 255 members, with many of the new members opting for the “Corporate” membership. VanEvery added that one question the Chamber office continues to receive, but can not answer is when they get a phone call asking for the “phone number for the oil field.”
VanEvery reported that local businesses are rising to the challenge by focusing on the needs of the new community members, with stores beginning to stock items needed on the drilling rigs, such as fire resistant clothing, safety clothing, hardhats, steel toe boots and work gloves.
The Chamber has worked with the local newspaper to produce county maps as well as a visitor’s guide.
VanEvery summed up the situation in Eastern Montana: “Rural [eastern] Montana was in decline, school enrollment was down, several schools in northeast Montana had been closed down and when a school closes, the community loses its identity. But offering hope for the region, VanEvery quickly added, “This [oil development] is a thirty year deal. Yes, there are problems, but at the Chamber of Commerce we see them as good problems.”