In eastern Montana, 2011 opened with snow and ice and sub zero temperatures and closed with warm weather well above freezing in many towns, big winds, and nearly no snow or ice. The weather reflects the changing tide in the news as well. 2010 brought finality to most of the top 10 stories for that year. Just one carried over to 2011, medical marijuana, and that sank from number 2 down to number 10. Many of the 2011 stories, however, are likely to continue in the region, telling tales of the living history of the Mondak energy rush, through 2012.
These are the top 10 stories in the Mondak region for 2011:
10. Medical Marijuana
In 2010 medical marijuana had governments agencies to medical providers on edge. A double barreled gun hit the issue in 2011. As the legislature severely curtailed the profitability of medical marijuana care providers and put in place more stringent regulations for issuing cards. Meanwhile, the DEA and FBI worked statewide and in eastern Montana sweeping arrests of medical marijuana providers putting many large-scale operations out of business and frightening others away from the industry. Three individuals from one operation in eastern Montana out of Miles City were caught up in the sweep. Meanwhile, most towns as a precautionary measure passed medical marijuana moratoriums or other ordinances. The last to do so was in December with a first reading of an ordinance of a medical marijuana licensing ordinance in Baker, Montana.
9. Driver Licensing
In 2011 the impact of the energy rush took hold as increased activity moved from North Dakota into eastern Montana. One of the early impacts proved problematic both for employers and state workers – driver licensing. In April the Motor Vehicles Division came forward and said there was an extensive wait for employees to be tested for Montana CDLs. Staff shortages and uncertainties for testing locations throughout the region all played a role. With very low unemployment rates, employers in the spring and through the remainder of the year found they needed to import workers to the region but once here, employees had to wait as long as six weeks for driver testing. As a result, offices were automated as much as possible, the state assigned workers to the region, and pleas were made to companies to coordinate with the motor vehicles division to make the system as efficient as possible. Other CDL issues were in the spot light as well this year as the trucker-dependent energy fields faced lobbying for hours, resisted black boxes in trucks, and saw new texting and driving rules go into place to keep the oil moving and the roads safe.
8. Low Unemployment
This was the year that anyone who wanted a job could have one. The year ended with a quarter of far eastern counties having less than 3% unemployment. Fast food restaurants on both sides of the Mondak border were forced to periodically close dining rooms and serve take-out because of a lack of employees and managers. Every industry in the region found difficulty in filling entry level lower wage jobs. Employment offices is the southern and eastern parts of the state that were hard hit by the 2008 economic downturn have sent employees to the region this year hoping to find new work and a new start. Often the economic refugees arrived with little and food banks, clothing, furniture, and other church benevolence programs saw a rise in need as a result. Many of those as well as long-time locals faced rising costs of food and other unregulated goods as businesses were forced to raise prices to raise wages in order to retain employees.
Water use, water rights and water processing sprinkling the news in the region throughout 2011. One continuing story that will go into next year is the potential regulation of small wells which have never needed permits previously in Montana. The legislature may consider requiring them next session. Additionally, many larger towns including Glendive are considering annexation and subdivision regulations which may affect water users. Annexation can include the requirement that landowners give up water rights which is already being proposed. Throughout 2011 cities and counties grappled with funding new sewage treatment plants required by the EPA both because of federal environmental requirements and because increased populations brought about increased issues of capacity. Policy makers began watching a case, Manhattan v the Department of Natural Resources. In that case which is making its way through the state supreme court the town believes it has water rights by way of growth. The outcome of that case is likely to come next year and influence eastern Montana water policy.
6. Regional Investment
In 2008, while the country faced financial disaster, eastern Montana was somewhat of a sanctuary. Few lost houses, no banks closed, industry was muted but stable. Big financial institutions took notice of the activity in eastern Montana. Billions, literally, were spent this year by companies such as OneOK who built a rail terminal in Sidney with a $1.8 billion dollar investment, pipeline infrastructure upgrades and new lines, new drilling rigs, and investments in wells. The banking industry took notice. For the first time ever the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota held their meetings in Sidney, Montana and CEO Narayana Kocherlakota addressed monetary policy. Later in the year when credit unions faced a shift in their financial chain we discovered that readers took notice and called The Examiner’s attention to the changes.
One of the most curious trends of 2011 investments in the Mondak regions was a general disconnect between local government and government-initiated economic development and the majority of the investors. With the exception of Sidney and Williston Mayors Brett Smelser and Ward Koser who together have continued to forge new regional plans, most investment both in direct oil and gas projects as well as support services have been industry initiated with government coordination as an afterthought, if they were brought into their circle of trust at all. It has been the antecedent to desperate moves in larger depressed economies,which the Mondak was just a few short years ago, and is trending toward modeling theories of capitalist purism.
5. Regional Air Service
The Glendive Community Airport was a frequent flier this year. An announcement early in the year affecting all essential air service airports brought about a new airline, formerly Gulfstream now Silver, which replaced Great Lakes. Successful flights were moved from Denver to Billings which proved problematic for Glendive and Miles City but successful for Sidney, Glasgow, Wolf Point. Glendive nearly lost essential air service this summer as it became a football in Washington politics. Temporary funding for service was restored a month later and put in place through February 2012. Meanwhile the Glendive airport board began the process of looking at developing the airport beyond EAS and medical flights and plan to continue those conversations into next year.
The first signs that this would be a flood year came in January with a blizzard that shut down roads and opened emergency shelters. Throughout the region big rigs lined every available parking space and alley. Next came February with warnings from the Secretary of State to homeowners to check their policies because snow packs were averaging 127% or more of normal. The first flooding happened in mid-March followed by a re-freeze then the flood waters literally let loose in May and didn’t stop until July. The remainder of the year was spent first in emergency repairs, funding long-term repairs, and finally in December looking at what happened and how to minimize similar events in the future.
3. Schools and Funding
A few years ago for many small schools in the region there was question as to whether they would be able to keep their doors open. Not so in 2011. In 2011 the question became where will the children sit, where will teachers be found, and how will the growth get paid for. During previous booms some districts were able to put funds away for a rainy day. The 2011 legislature removed part of that flexibility which hit schools like Wibaux and Lambert particularly hard. Sidney was faced with the choice of either expense asbestos abatement on a unused wing of an old school or building a new one. Students with special needs are pouring into districts. School representatives in multiple districts told state legislators on a bus tour in October that 40% of students are coming into the district with special needs and federally mandated individualized education plans.
2. The Keystone XL Pipeline
In September, tensions were high as thousands were expected in Glendive to testify both for and against the TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. Throughout the year TransCanada supported non-profits such as the Dawson County Boys and Girls Club and numerous fire and rescue departments around the region. Nearly 1,000 appeared for Glendive hearing. Despite the concerns about safety and outbursts elsewhere, the testimony was orderly. While things were quiet on the home front, far away in Nebraska a growing outcry against the pipeline’s path was building. The year ended without trumpets and with no decision as to if the US government will allow the pipeline to be built. Meanwhile, the energy rush continued, wells continue to be completed that are producing sweet crude and other companies quickly began looking at alternate ways to truck and rail oil out of the Mondak region to help fill the need of the still-hoped for Baker on-ramp.
1. The top stories of the year? Housing.
Housing cost, housing stock, workforce housing. Apartment rents skyrocketed this year. In 2007 rents in the region averaged $100 – $400 per month. In 2011 few rentals are available at less than $1,000 per month with an average of $1,250. In some small towns workers are paying $5,500 per month. In 2009 during the construction of the Basin Electric Generating plant near Culbertson community concerns were voiced about people renting out basements in northeastern Montana to strangers. Now there are no basements and no apartments to speak of available. RV camps have popped up on agriculture land and Bainville is constructing a workforce housing compound. A year ago ordinance committees in every community were debating medical marijuana provider sitings Those conversations, often with the same hesitant flavor, have been replaced with workforce housing sitings Hotels in every larger community – Miles City, Glendive, and Sidney are being constructed. Many are living in cars and trucks. Minimally used trailer courts such as those on West Towne street in Glendive have been revitalized, and permits have been requested to re-open others. Rents are not traditional low-income trailer court rents. Instead, in many locations one-half of a trailer rents for $350 or more per week. Housing meetings have been held by local government bodies in every county.
The poster child of the area housing crisis though is was seen through the eyes of a little boy. A principal in Sidney told legislators about a little boy, new in town, who missed his bus. To the great surprise of his mother who never heard of such kindness in their previous big city, the principal offered to take him home and the mother agreed. All the way home the boy was excited to show his principal his new home. As they passed the gravel and scoria, they approached a rig with a van. The boy excitedly and proudly said that was his new home. The family explained that the work his father had obtained on the rig was the first work they had found in a couple of years. Through the crash they lost everything. Through hard work and eastern Montana hospitality they found hope. That is the essence of 2011: communities lived the hope they had years ago.
(Listen to the video to the left of this column to hear Sidney Middle School Principal tell the story in her own words.)
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