Minnesotans take advantage of North Dakota oil boom

6:32 AM, Aug 8, 2012   |    comments
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WILLISTON, N.D. - What used to be a quite chirp in the background has turned into a constant hum in the fore front.

Over the last three years, opportunity has drilled its way in and around Williston, North Dakota.

And Minnesotans are trying to cash in.

"We realized it wasn't just a pocket of this but it was pretty much a pervasive resource," said Tom Reliefs, director of economic development in Williston.

Rolfstad is talking about the billions of gallons of oil believed to be in the Bakken Basin beneath western North Dakota. He says oil companies are spending two billion dollars a month just in drilling operations.

And Williston is chasing to keep up with all the demand, chief among them is housing. There are simply not enough places to fit everyone.

That is where two Minnesotans come in.

"It's really an RV park just indoors," said Chad Lekander of Mahtowa, Minnesota which is 30 minutes outside of Duluth.

After his construction business dried up back home, Lekander came up with the idea to build an indoor RV park when he took at trip to western North Dakota.

"I saw all the campers out here. I saw all the campers in the cold and this idea occurred to me," he said.

So he enlisted the help of friend, Louie Bonneville who lives in nearby Atkinson and together they formed B & H Construction. They got the investors they needed, which they say was no small feat. They then headed west to the small town of Watford near Williston.

"If we would have quit when someone told us no, we would have quit in the first two days," said Louie Bonneville.

They are in the middle of constructing 10 buildings that will become an indoor RV park. With the cold weather just around the corner, it is designed to help with the growing need for housing in the area.

"It's really an RV park without all the hassles. It's just taking the worry out of living in your camper in a harsh climate," said Lekander.

The interest has been overwhelming and so has the project. Just recently a strong storm blew over one of the buildings.

They hope to have the entire park completed by the fall, but believe the parts of it can open as soon as this month.

The complex will be managed by Fargo-based Neta Property Management and will house 240 campers at around $1500 dollars a month. A relative steal with some places in nearby Williston going for $700 a week.

It will also be equipped with hook ups for sewer, water, and electricity. Fresh air will also be pumped in to each unit. And Lekander says no motorized RV's are allowed, along with any type of gas or grills, which was part of the agreement with the health department.

"We're all in. We've got every penny we have and every penny we could borrow. We are all in," said Lekander.

It is believed to be the first indoor RV Park in the country, perhaps the world. And almost everyone working on the project is from Minnesota.

"All people we knew from home," said Bonneville.

The workers live on-site in campers, including Lekander and Bonneville, along with some of their children who help with construction.

Having at least some family close softens the heartache of being away.

"For me that's the hardest part," said Bonneville."But it will all work out. My wife is really supportive so that's good."

Being away from his wife and two sons is the hardest part for Scott Ostrum who moved from North Branch, Minnesota to help manage the Economart grocery store in Williston.

"I go home one weekend a month. Every time I come back, it seems to get harder and harder," he said.
Ostrum used to work for Rainbow Foods but was recruited by Econmart's owner Mike Kraft, who also owns grocery stores in nearby Tioga and Stanley. However, Ostrum hasn't completely given up his Minnesota ties.
Kraft has partnered with St. Cloud-based Coborn's to help run his current stores. Together they will open five new stores in Western North Dakota, two of which will replace the stores in Tioga and Stanley.
"I needed a partner," said Mike Kraft. "It was a good partnership because I was trying to leave a legacy for my employees."

Coborn's is an employee owned company.

"North Dakota is a prime market for Coborn's to expand," said Coborn's President and Ceo Chris Coborn in a statement. "Expanding our family of stores to include these new locations represents positive, strategic growth for our employee-owned company."

Kraft says the partnership will also help him keep up with demand, which at times is so high the stores struggle to keep the shelves stocked. There have been reports of other stores in the area having the same problems.

"It's not something you can read in a conventional book and go to college and learn it. You have to invent every day as it happens," he said.

Over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Kraft says his store in Williston ran out of a semi load of ice. And the demand for qualified workers is high too. Between the current stores, he has more than 100 openings.

Housing is such a concern here that Kraft says applicants have an advantage if they indicate they have a home lined up before applying.

"That's immediate, almost. That plus a little experience and it's basically can you start now," he said.

Ostrum is renting a house with one of his colleagues. The house is owned by Kraft. And while it may not be ideal, Ostrum believes it is a once in a life time opportunity.

"Where else in a country can you say you got 50-percent increase to prior year sales; you can't," he said.

He plans to return to Minnesota fulltime in a few years.

As far as Lekander and Bonneville, they plan to return to Minnesota in the winter but do not plan to leave North Dakota all together. They believe they can get more work in western North Dakota in the coming months. They own 50 percent of the indoor RV Park and look to make a profit in the next couple years.

"I hope," said Bonneville with a smile.

In the middle of nowhere, hope seems to be everywhere as so many try to build a new future.

"It really has been a great adventure," said Lekander.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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