"It is not if it comes here, but when," said Al Homme, a city judge in Miles City, who predicts a 15-year boom accompanied by many of Williston's problems.
Oil workers are young men paid handsome sums. There's little to do in small rural towns with those sums but frivol it away on alcohol and electronic casinos. Some workers dispose of their earnings at Whispers, one of Williston's two seedy strip bars.
There, young men slug down liquor, drop loud F-bombs and jostle over billiards. Some disappear with dancers into rooms guarded by burly, tattooed, pierced men who work in the club.
Perhaps the men are getting a lap dance, perhaps it's something more. Locals claim prostitutes from Las Vegas come out for the weekend and go home with $5,000 in earnings. At Whispers, there seem to be two distinct kinds of women pole dancing - hard-looking older women, presumably locals, and tall, slender young women who resemble showgirls.
For many workers coming to the Bakken region, they quickly find they can't afford to live here.
"The city is being terribly saturated with individuals looking for work," said Cal Westerhof, a missionary from Dallas whose Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney offers free showers, food donations and low-cost rentals for displaced workers.
Rents have more than doubled all over the oil region. People rent out basements, rooms and even their front yards for trailers. Makeshift RV parks have cropped up everywhere and charge $400 a week or more. That's about what an apartment rented for monthly before the boom began.
"Even with a good-paying job, how do you afford to pay the rent? Groceries have gone horribly high ... living on a daily basis here is high," said Candy Markwald, who helps run the Richland County Food Bank in Sidney.
For Brant Powell, 23, rent isn't an option. He came up from Bozeman earlier this year and landed a job driving a truck that hauls sand used in the oil drilling process. He's forced to live in his truck, unable to afford the high rent.
"It sucks," he said with a laugh when asked what it's like to live out of a truck cab.
In between attempts to woo a barmaid at the Cattle-Ac, known to Sidney police for its oil-worker brawls, Powell scarfed down dinner and admitted that he's had about enough of the oil patch.
"It's just rough. You don't know anybody here; you don't feel at home," he said. "It's dirty. But people do a lot for money."
Apartments and condos are under rush construction on the outskirts of Sidney, but they'll rent for $2,000 a month and upward, a price tag for supervisors and managers. It means workers like Powell coming to the oil patch are likely to keep improvising.
"Holy smokes, if you want it bad enough, you'll find a ranch, a basement, a backyard," said Wally Jungels, a roofer from Miles City whose company paid for three workers to share a small trailer next to Sidney's Pizza Hut. "If you're not making $15 an hour, you can't live here."
It's so bad that an area manager for a major national fast-food chain confides he's forced to bring in foreigners on student visas just to man the cash registers.
"I advertised at $10 an hour and got no response," said the manager, who demanded anonymity because his well-known chain doesn't want to broadcast that it brings in college kids on student visas for three-month stints.
September marks the start of his staffing problems. Summer has ended north of equator, and the Russian, Ukrainian and Macedonian students have returned to their universities. It won't be until December that summer vacation begins south of the equator. At that point, the manager can bring in students from Brazil, Peru and elsewhere.
With so few rental options, the fast-food chain bought three trailers to house its visiting guest workers.
Kim Trangmoe, executive director of the Glendive Chamber of Commerce, points to a 10-acre parcel of land that just a few years ago sold for $10,000. It's up for sale again, listed at over $300,000.
"It really hurts our essential workers - firefighters, teachers and the like. Their paychecks are not going up with the rent," said Trangmoe, noting that the local sheriff had to purchase a home for use as temporary living quarters for patrol officers. "I think our biggest struggle is housing for renters."
The town's mayor agrees.
"We're seeing landlords increasing rent to the point that a lot of local people who've lived here all their lives are feeling the pinch," said Jerry Jimison, adding that new construction hasn't kept pace. "We've never had homeless people in Glendive ... there are some of them living in tents, sleeping in parks. It's not hundreds and hundreds, but there are more stragglers showing up with no place to live."
Soaring land prices inhibit growth and expansion. Owners of the Rib & Chop House in Miles City, which attracts hungry oilmen, have been frustrated in their attempts to open in nearby towns.
"Everything is so incredibly expensive ... there is nothing available," said Brian Merwin, 31, general manager and co-owner, who added that he's had to sharply raise wages in the kitchen. "We've had to almost double what we're paying. If you don't pay them a larger amount, they'll go pick up a shovel and make $50,000 a year."
Still, Merwin's business has exceeded his wildest dreams. Profits have surpassed the prior year by more than 30 percent in each of the past three years. He's more than doubled the $1.5 million in his original business plan for the restaurant.
As the oil boom continues, he reasons, there'll be demand for more steakhouses.
"If a crew gets off, they'll come in and spend a whole lot of money," Merwin said. "They want to buy a $60 steak and eat well after seven days on."
Most Popular Stories
- Slow Week Ahead of December FOMC Meeting
- Hispanics Seek to Grow School Board Members
- GM Bailout Saved 1.2 Million U.S. Jobs, Report Says
- 'Knockout Game': Myth or Menace?
- Questions Remain in Jenni Rivera's Death
- U.S. Companies Eager for Iranian Business
- Bitcoin Used to Buy Tesla Car
- Banks Fret as Volcker Vote Approaches
- Paul Walker Fans Pay Respects
- Yellen Set to Become One of World's Most Powerful Women