NEW ENGLAND — There isn’t a producing oil well within 15 miles of New England.
But just like many other western North Dakota communities, the small town in northwestern Hettinger County is seeing a revitalization thanks in large part to the economic impact of the Bakken oil boom.
Several new homes are being built, and the city’s population has increased from 460 a few years ago to an estimated 700.
Business isn’t exactly booming, but it has seen a noticeable uptick with more sales tax dollars being generated, longtime community businesses building new facilities and new businesses opening along a once-decaying Main Street.
All are great signs for a small town that only a few years ago seemed relegated to watching businesses close as its population grew older and dwindled.
“Main Street in New England hasn’t probably looked this good in 30 years,” New England Mayor Marty Opdahl said.
Preparing for a boom that never came
Less than three years ago, New England city auditor Jason Jung said city officials were told, “Be ready.”
Land men had leased most mineral rights in western and central Hettinger County, as well as in neighboring Slope County just 3 miles west of New England.
Oil activity, most assumed, was right around the corner.
“That didn’t materialize the way we thought it was going to materialize,” Opdahl said. “However, it did open our eyes.”
Since then, the city has made drastic changes to its zoning ordinances, will soon begin work on a new fire and ambulance hall on its north side, and is adding on to its school for the first time in more than two decades. A new laundromat is being built, and the owner of the city’s bowling alley and restaurant is turning an abandoned lumber yard site across the street from his business into a new bar.
“Building permits have definitely increased,” Jung said.
The amount of city sales tax recouped was up tremendously in 2012, coming in at just over $143,000, according to the North Dakota state treasurer’s office. Through mid-August, the city has recouped $92,500, which is on pace to equal last year’s numbers. In 2005, it brought in only $37,000.
“Our financial picture right now in New England is probably as strong as it’s been, as far as the city is concerned, in probably 20 years,” Opdahl said. “It’s going well. We’ve had some additional income coming in and this is at the same time, preparing for this, that we’ve replaced just about all of our major pieces of equipment.”
A 2 percent city sales tax has helped that income increase, Jung said. After reopening in 2005, New England’s outdoor pool is scheduled to be paid off years ahead of schedule thanks to the increase in tax dollars.
Because a portion of that money must go toward capital improvements, Opdahl said it could open the city up to further recreational possibilities. Some citizens hope the next project is the remodeling of the abandoned nine-hole golf course about a mile west of New England, or a walking and running track along the Cannonball River.
“I think it would be an added economic development for the city, plus another draw to have people move to the city of New England,” Jung said.
Changes to the community
Thought of by many — including its own mayor — as a “bedroom community” for Dickinson 25 miles to its north, New England is beginning to embrace the label.
Jung, who helps new residents sign up for utilities, said most newcomers work in Dickinson or in the oil industry. A few others just wanted to escape the high prices of housing elsewhere.
“When I first started here, it was definitely considered an elderly town. There has kind of been a shift in that,” said Jung, a single father who moved home to raise his daughter after working for IBM in Minneapolis and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He is now the head coach of the New England girls’ basketball team and wears several hats around town alongside his auditor duties.
“I wouldn’t consider New England an elderly town right now. We have some really good, young progressive people here that like to get things done. It seems like a lot of projects we have, it’s been a good community effort. That’s what it takes for a small town to grow.”
Chris Cooper, 30, moved to North Dakota from Fort Myers, Fla., to work as a subcontractor and is one of New England’s newest citizens. He said he loves the small-town atmosphere for raising his family.
“I really do like it,” said Cooper, who has two young children. “It’s a very family-orientated atmosphere. It’s a slower pace. You can actually breathe.”
Cooper has built two houses here and has acquired a vacant piece of land on the city’s north side where he plans to construct seven more and an apartment building with the help of out-of-state financiers.
“Some people don’t want to be in Dickinson, they just don’t want to be there,” Cooper said. “There’s too much going on, too much hustle and bustle. They want to be here, and we’re close enough to the boom that we’re not getting all the riff-raff, but we’re still picking up some of the money from the boom.”
Even longtime New England residents like Harold and Sharon Maershbecker are putting money into helping revitalize the town.
They are constructing a two-story storefront building on Main Street that will also have eight apartments. It is being built on the site where the town’s general store once stood.
“The buildings there were in very bad shape, needed to be taken down,” Sharon Maershbecker said. “We didn’t want to leave another hole in Main Street. We kept racking our brains, trying to think of something we could do to help the community, and that was what we came up with.”
‘A very good location’
If the oil industry eventually moves south and inundates Slope, Bowman and Hettinger counties like it did areas in northwest North Dakota, New England expects to be at the heart of the activity because of its location.
The city is at the junction of Highways 21 and 22, is 12 miles west of busy Highway 85, and is the only city with room to grow and the amenities to support oil-related development between Dickinson and Bowman.
“We’re in a very good location,” said Rep. Mike Schatz, a New England native and retired history and government teacher who also coached the school’s now nonexistent football team to four 9-man state championships. “I’ve lived here all my life. I’m one of those people who have been here from birth until now. We’ve seen it go up and down a bit. Until the boom started, it was mostly down. … Now, there is some real optimism on Main Street.”
Though New England and its surrounding area is on the fringe of the Bakken formation, it is in the middle of the Three Forks and Tyler formations, meaning oil development could come slowly. Marathon Oil Corp. noted in its 2012 media packet that it holds leases in Hettinger and Slope counties.
Opdahl said the city has spoken with the North Dakota Department of Transportation about moving its water depot from inside city limits to its edge along Highway 21 when the road undergoes improvements next year. That would help divert potential water truck traffic related to the oil industry.
Future projects, the mayor said, could include sewer, water line and street repairs — especially if New England continues to grow. Opdahl said the city could handle about 1,500 people if it had to.
“We have to ask some hard questions,” Opdahl said. “These are questions we just don’t ask ourselves as city officials. We have to ask the residents, are they willing to go to the future?”
No one knows whether the oil industry will have a long and lasting impact on the New England area.
One way or another, Opdahl said New England will be prepared. He noted the city has been through its share of booms and busts.
About 100 years ago, New England touted itself as the grain capital of the world. In the mid- to late 20th century, it was a vibrant community with two schools that thrived off the surrounding agricultural industry.
As time went on, the railroad pulled up tracks, grain elevators and farm implement dealerships closed and, eventually, so did the St. Mary’s School.
Now, after almost 20 years of downturn, New England is finally showing signs that it isn’t just another dying North Dakota small town.
“Many times I’ve heard people say, ‘New England is dead now. This is the nail in the coffin,’” Opdahl said. “The difference is, you have to know the people of New England. The people from New England are residual, they never quit, they never die.”