I’ve been taking a jaunt through North Dakota. For the first installment, go here. Where were we?
In Fargo, I meet Michael Chambers, the co-founder, president, and CEO of Aldevron. This is a biotech company, and, in fact, the first biotech company in North Dakota. Chambers is homegrown — the son of beekeepers in Carrington, N.D. The grandson and great-grandson of beekeepers, too. And he himself knows how to keep bees.
His wife, Victoria, is from Hazen, N.D. They met at a science fair, when they were 15 (I believe). She won.
Michael drove many times between Carrington and Hazen. Then, the two went to North Dakota State together.
This is something out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, isn’t it?
Aldevron has 100 employees. Michael says, “It’s kind of like a small family farm.” Indeed, his brother and uncle work there.
Understand the importance of being able to stay home — being able to stay in North Dakota, if you want to. For years — for generations — people had to leave North Dakota, to have a chance in life. There were few opportunities here. The state was emptying out.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. One of her goals is to make New Mexico a state that people don’t have to leave, if they don’t want to.
A lot of people like to go far afield — for adventure, for a new setting, etc. But a lot of other people would like to stay home, or nearby. They want to marry, have a career, and raise a family near their parents, their grandparents . . .
Is that too much to ask?
Thanks to the oil boom, North Dakotans who left are returning home “in droves,” says Dennis Lindahl. He is a councilman and consultant in Stanley, N.D. He himself left and came back.
The state to the west, Montana, is known as “Big Sky Country,” but North Dakota has plenty of sky too. Holy-moly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much sky.
I meet a lady who quotes Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. This is a place of “too much horizon, too much sky,” says Norris. The “essential indifference to the human can be unnerving.”
Here’s a bizarre fact: Kathleen Norris went to the Punahou school in Honolulu — same as President Obama.
Another lady, who lives in Tioga, N.D., says North Dakota has a “quiet beauty.” She adds, “You have to look closely.”
The chief oil regulator in this state is a man named Lynn Helms. Dennis Lindahl says, “Part of our success here is the result of his personality.” Helms is a calm, knowledgeable, patient man, who teaches people the facts of life in the oil patch. He gets along with all parties. He is a soother of nerves.
Is he related to the late North Carolina senator? (Not necessarily known for soothing nerves.) Yes, distantly. (I hasten to say that Senator Helms had other virtues.)
Lynn Helms grew up near Buffalo, S.D., a town mentioned in our first installment. He worked practically every job in the oil business, before becoming a regulator. He roughnecked his way through college.
He says, “I think it’s important for a regulator to have a working knowledge of the regulated industry. For example, what does a rule mean to a roughneck or to a production engineer?”
(I have quoted this bit in my National Review piece.)
Outside a building in Bismarck, I see a sign I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: “Smoke-Free Entrance, 50 Feet.” No smoking within 50 feet of the building. That is really a sign of our times, when we ban indoor smoking (forcing smokers outdoors).
The building, I believe, is a nursing home.
Ron Ness is president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. He grew up in Tolna, a tiny town in the eastern part of the state. His father ran the grain elevator. Ron knows something about bad times, something about emptying out. He saw his town lose its school, its café, and its grocery store.
He himself walked just 500 yards to high school. After him, kids were bused 45 miles each way.
The vast pot of oil that sits in the northwestern part of the state is called the Bakken — the Bakken formation. The name rhymes with “rockin’.” In fact, there’s a bumper sticker: “Rockin’ the Bakken.”
Another one says, “If it weren’t for the Bakken, we’d be walkin’.” A third says, “Bringin’ home the Bakken.” (Well, that one may be a little weak.)
Gary Emineth is both a politico and a businessman — an entrepreneur. Man’s in the burrito business. For the Bakken, he had a special burrito made: big and meal-like. He has done more business in 13 stores in the Bakken than in 450 stores elsewhere.
I’m told that the Cenex in Stanley — this is a convenience store — does $1 million a year in business. Stanley is just a small town, mind you: under 1,500 people. At least, that was true as of the last census. Now, I’m not really sure.
Apparently, there are kids from 39 states in the high school. Teachers are holding class in the lunchroom, the auditorium, and the garage. They’re about to get a $7 million expansion.
That Cenex? I’m told that it sells more Piccadilly Pizza than any other store in the country.
Care for some more fun facts, indicative of the boom? In Williston, the McDonald’s had to shut down in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. They had run out of food.
You get a signing bonus, for working at that McDonald’s — $1,000, I’m told. Pay begins at $18 an hour (again, I’m told). Blue-chip health insurance.
At the Williston Walmart, they don’t really bother stocking the shelves. Who wants to work as a stockboy when you can make a bundle in the oil patch? Also, the goods would not stay on the shelves long.
The store just sets the pallets in the aisles, and customers grab the goods and go right to the register.
The Walmart in Minot, I hear, is thinking about closing down: Hard to get people to work there. Truckers in the oil patch make between $80,000 and $120,000 a year, with generous benefits.
Someone says to me, “Do you mind if I tell you something blue?” Naturally, I’m all ears. “From what I hear,” he says, “the strippers are making more per night in Williston than they do in Las Vegas.”
Well, I’ll be. See you tomorrow, for Part III? It’ll be our finale.