Shawn Wenko, Assistant Director of Williston Economic Development

Williston is making national and international headlines for it’s booming economy based on The Bakken! The man in charge of the Williston Economic Development Office, Shawn Wenko is excited and optimistic toward the future of his city! And he joins us on this week’s Hegg Bakken Report!

Hegg Bakken Report: Today on the program we go to the city of Williston, North Dakota, in the Workforce Development Department and it’s the Williston Economic Development office, and the development coordinator is Shawn Wenko. Shawn, thanks for joining us on the program today.

Shawn Wenko: I’ll tell you what, thanks for having me on.

Hegg Bakken Report: Absolutely. Are you a native of Williston, North Dakota?

Shawn Wenko: You know I am. I was born and raised in Williston and I’ll tell you, I did what a lot of people did in the 90’s when they graduated, they moved away.

Hegg Bakken Report: Okay.

Shawn Wenko: There wasn’t a lot of opportunity here in the area. I spent 15 years down in South Dakota and I came back in 2008 with my wife and you are seeing that a lot now, a lot of young professions are coming back, because the opportunity is here.

Hegg Bakken Report: Can you be more specific of when you left Williston, what year was that?

Shawn Wenko: Yep, I was gone about 1995, 1996.

Hegg Bakken Report: I recall in the late 80s a sign outside of Williston after the first boom went bust. It said, last one out, turn out the lights. So you were probably still there during that time though.

Shawn Wenko: Yes, that slogan really did ring true. I mean it got pretty quiet here for a while. I mean we went through 20 years of a patch and maintain mentality, because we just didn’t have a lot of economic development going on.

Hegg Bakken Report: And look at us now, look at us now. What were you involved with in South Dakota?

Shawn Wenko: You know my background believe it or not is tourism. It’s kind of comical as in the truism I study what’s called sustainable destination management, which means I look at areas and I look at how much tourism can they handle before the whole things collapse on itself and not necessarily tourism up here, but it’s kind of similar. What we are trying to do is really look at what’s healthy economic development and really trying to manage the fastest growing micropolitan in the nation right now.

Hegg Bakken Report: Absolutely. And how long have you been involved in the position that you are in now?

Shawn Wenko: You know, I came back in 2008 and I started with Economic Development Offices as the Workforce Development Coordinator and believe it or not, I actually traveled to other parts of the United States trying and entice people to move to Williston to fill some of the jobs we had. And obviously after things really took off, we didn’t have that problem anymore and with the increased enquiries of developers coming to our office, I just started taking a lot of the overflow of the executive directors. So I moved into the Assistant Director position just about two years ago.

Hegg Bakken Report: And what is your office hearing as far as where the population of Williston, North Dakota is heading.

Shawn Wenko: I’ll tell you what, that’s the million-dollar question. We think – it’s been such a challenge trying to figure out how many people are here and how many people are actually are permanent residents that live here. We think right now that we are servicing in the neighborhood of about 40,000 to 42,000 people and that’s what is reflective at our wastewater treatment plant and our water usage throughout the day.

A lot of people talk where we’ve gone. We just had a population study done by MBSU. They think we are going to add another 2000 people a year for the next five years, which would take us about 2017, which they think we would be in the neighborhood of 50,000 or 60,000 and from that point on its been such a challenge to calculate population. I think we’ll settle in doing another long-term study just in a couple of years and once we kind of even out a little bit with the activity.

Hegg Bakken Report: Right, this is based on a study done recently by North Dakota State University I believe and it was difficult to really pinpoint. Like you said, the million dollar question, you’ve got transient workers, you’ve got people that are there basically full time, but they are not considered residents. So it’s quite a challenge in really figuring out where the population of Williston is heading.

Shawn Wenko: Yes, absolutely and especially from an economic development standpoint. We look at specially housing, how much housing is going to be too much housing. You just don’t want to get in a situation where we way overbuild with capacity, because that’s not a good thing.

Hegg Bakken Report: And your permits, the first quarter of this year, through the roof. I mean $72 million worth of building permits, that’s twice what you did in the same period in 2012. What’s the last half of 2013 looking at as far as that’s concerned?

Shawn Wenko: It’s going to a big fall for us. You always see this is the fall, you will see a large bump in permits just because a lot of the developers want to get their projects started before winter sets in and they wanted to get their footings or foundations in the ground. So we led the state last year. We did over $470 million in permit valuation. If we match that or pass that this year it’s not going to surprise me, because we are well on track to that.

Hegg Bakken Report: What does Williston need right now? On the current pace that you are going on, what do you need at far as infrastructure? What would you like to see if you could wave a magic wand and make it a perfect world, what do you need?

Shawn Wenko: I’ll tell you, we need a little bit of everything. We basically have taken a city and we’ve triple the size of the land mass and the size of the population.

We have, our engineers have identified needs in the neighborhood of about $625 million and this is infrastructure needs for the city. I guess if I had a magic wand and I could pick one thing that we could have done tomorrow, it would defiantly be the surface transportation, and that’s the roads. If we can get these roads up to speed and there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of construction underway right now on the roads, but if we can get those done overnight, I tell you people would feel a lot better and I think the stress level would ease a lot, because that’s really the number one gripe of our citizens right now is; it’s just the half are getting around.

Hegg Bakken Report: New businesses that are coming to Williston, over the last several months I’ve heard of numerous restaurants and other types of business, chiropractic, you name it. Like you said, you need everything. As we move forward into the fall and winter months, what are you hearing as far as any more new businesses that plan to setup in Williston?

Shawn Wenko: Well, you know we are excited to see this now and I tell people a lot, that we really are starting to shift from a boom to a business model and it’s exactly what you said. The restaurants started the pop this spring. I think we added a dozen new restaurants to the area.

I’ll tell you, I just had lunch at the new Basil Restaurant, which is right next door. It’s kind of Sushi restaurant, excellent food there, but we added buffalo wild wings; we got Famous Dave’s that’s under construction; Outlaw Steakhouse is under construction, Fuddruckers is under construction. I’m sure we are going to see probably a half a dozen more probably full permits before the end of the year.

Our large developer Granite Peak just last week, obviously if you’ve heard, the announcement came through. Because of that they’ve also made announcement. They’ve signed for new Cash Wise Foods, a new Japanese’s Steakhouse and I think there’s several others coming down the pipeline that they got to announce to us. So it’s the restaurants are taken off. I think next year you are going to see the retail really take off and the professional services as well. So it’s getting exciting for Williston.

Hegg Bakken Report: Yes, and a while ago there was a release from your office about Williston holding group and they had four projects that they working on, the Grandma Sharon’s, Jay-Dubs, also the former Trappers Kettle. Have they increased their plans and their commitment in doing the things that they announced in this press release? Are they expanding on that, are they doing more?

Shawn Wenko: Yes, I’ll tell you what and I feel kind of foolish I didn’t mention them, but they just opened their Dock holidays a couple of months ago, which was the old Trapper’s Kettle. They are scheduled here September 16. They are going to open up the Williston brewing company, which is going to be located in – basically it’s the lobby and the restaurant and the meeting rooms of the old ElRancho Hotel.

But this investment group put about $5.25 million in the renovation of this place. I’ll tell you what; I’ve walked through there and it is going to be one phenomenal restaurant. It is just absolutely amazing. From the big screen TVs, to the wine cellar, to the bar that’s carved out of an old oak tree, it is just amazing.

Hegg Bakken Report: What about your office itself, how does it run? You’ve got a board of directors, you have an office staff; is it a pretty well-oiled machine or you’re kind of adapting as you go. How are things at the Williston Economic Development Office operating?

Shawn Wenko: You know I think we’re going pretty good. You know obviously we always say we could use probably twice the staff that we have. We are run by a foundation board of directors. The one thing our board has done is they’ve kind of shifted our focus. We used to business of creating jobs and was seven-tenths and 1% unemployment. We just, we don’t really have that challenge any more.

So for us now, our direction is to look at long-term sustainability, look at attracting industry other than oil and gas, although we are pro-oil and gas industry here. We are tremendously happy with what they are doing, but we want to look at some sustainability and some diversification in that area. At the same time for us you’ll see a lot of promotion or quality of life, and because we really want to start seeing the families come in to this area and families brings in their kids. Kids get in the school system. They start putting down roots, they become long-term residents. So that’s kind of our focus right now for this year and into the coming years.

Hegg Bakken Report: Our guest today is Shawn Wenko. Shawn is the development coordinator for the Williston Economic Development Department.

Let’s go back to housing for a moment Shawn. Are the rents starting to stabilize? Are you seeing any change as far as the price that – the per bedroom price in Williston North Dakota.

Shawn Wenko: You know, I’ll tell you what we saw this year is I think we have peaked out or what I would call the maximum of what people can get for rents in this town and what I mean by that is, you saw, we used to have $500 a month and then it went to $1000 and then it went to $1500 and it went to $2000. There is a point where it was starting to push the $3000 mark early into the spring and you started to see even the companies were just saying, that’s – we’re not going to pay that. That’s getting a little outrageous.

We point out that capacity is coming online at a record pace. I would say this time last year if you tried to find a place to live in Williston, it was almost impossible. Today if you need a place, if it’s a life or death situation, you can find a place to live. Unfortunately you are still paying those high rents, I call them the Manhattan rates, but really with what’s under construction and what’s coming online, it’s going to be just a matter of time before these rates come down, because we are going to have a lot of capacity to accommodate the people coming here.

Hegg Bakken Report: What about your local lenders. Are they loosing up as far as making financing available for single family homes in Williston.

Shawn Wenko: I think the lenders have been pretty good. I’ll tell you what; I haven’t worked a lot in that market. Usually our Executive Director deals are a lot in that area. But the local lenders have been cautions, but they’ve been pretty good as far as their lending practice goes.

Hegg Bakken Report: I was going to ask you a question if there is any opportunities in Williston, North Dakota, but I already know the answer to that question based on everything that you’ve told me today. So I’ll rephrase that, what advice would you give to an entrepreneur that wants to set up shop in Williston, North Dakota.

Shawn Wenko: Well, you know the biggest thing is that somebody from outside the area, they need to be here and get some boots on the ground and kind of really understand what is happening out here and understand what they would be getting into.

At the same time I tell a lot of people that have walked through our door. If you are going to start a business or you want to get into this market, you have to have a presence here, because those are the ones that we’ve seen have been successful and what I mean. If company A is selling widgets and they have an office here, they are seeing 100 times more than company B who sells the same widgets, but they based out of Odessa, Texas or something. You just have to have an operation here to – you have to have boots on the ground to really, to really make an impact.

Hegg Bakken Report: Everybody that we’ve talked to, and we’ve talked to quite a few people, not only in Williston, North Dakota, but you know your neighbors over in Watford City and Tioga, everybody in the city government and in positions such as yours seems to be very optimistic and very upbeat. You are having fun, aren’t you?

Shawn Wenko: You know I’ll tell you, we are. It’s going to at a break neck pace. Sometimes I would say it gets a little overwhelming, but it’s exciting to see the city develop now and it’s exciting to see the restaurant and retail coming into the area and now we have that new Rec under construction. The $72 million Rec center. I walked through that two weeks ago and it’s exciting to see that about ready to open in March. So just to see say some of things and see a lot of young professionals come back to the area, it’s good to see.