To get a sense of what’s happening in a community, it’s often best to consult the local barber.
Paul Ellerkamp owns Big Sky Barbers, a two-chair shop he runs with his younger brother in a north Dickinson strip mall.
Their business is a small, but accurate representation of the highs of the oil boom, the slows of the bust and the ongoing market stabilization the area is going through today.
The surprising similarity between the oil boom and now, Ellerkamp said, is his bottom line.
“We’re not turning away 50 people a day,” he said with a small sigh of relief. “… But somehow the bottom line is about the same. We do not see as many oilfield guys as we used to. I won’t even begin to give you a percentage of how much that has dropped off — but quite a few.”
As Dickinson and its surrounding small towns settle back into something similar to the pre-boom world, Ellerkamp said there’s plenty of positives to take from it.
“Overall, if you’d look at it from a person that has been here 10 years, or has lived here all their life, they kind of liked not so much of the hustle and bustle,” he said. “It’s definitely more of the hometown feeling.”
And so it goes for life in Dickinson and southwest North Dakota, where an oil boom brought thousands of people to the area, only to leave many high and dry when prices collapsed in early 2014 and kept falling through early January.
Now, instead of eyeing expansion and trying to track uncharted growth, most businesses and cities are planning for modesty and hoping they can plan for the possibility of both a calm and busy future, should oil prices and activity suddenly rebound.
Major projects and commercial development in Dickinson have all but come to a halt as the hub city begins paying off deficits created by infrastructure and building projects that helped alleviate the booming, oil-driven economy.
What remains of Dickinson’s once hurried building sector is on the public side, where the Dickinson Middle School building is taking shape and water treatment facilities are under construction. New commercial developments — such as stores and restaurants — while still opening, aren’t coming at as fast of a clip as they were the past two years.
However, Dickinson’s economy isn’t faltering — even in the face of low oil prices and uncertain farm commodities and livestock prices.
“We know we’re rebalancing the Dickinson economy now,” Stark Development Executive Vice President Gaylon Baker said in his State of the City speech on Jan. 19. “We’re going to get back to a more normal situation.”
Even the small towns in southwest North Dakota aren’t sweating the slowdown much.
“Some projects have kind of slowed down. Traffic has,” said Chuck Muscha, Killdeer’s mayor. “But I think probably the main people who had the biggest effect is the business owners. When this transpired, things were booming. Now they’re closer to normal.”
Mark Benz, who owns the Grab n’ Go convenience store at the corner of state Highways 22 and 200 as well as petroleum distributor Benz Oil in Killdeer, said the slowdown in activity is noticeable on both the visual and business side.
But, he said he’s maintaining a philosophy of “no rash decisions.”
While the convenience store opened in 2012 at the height of the boom, Benz Oil has been around since 1970. So Benz said he’s seen plenty of highs and lows in the oil business.
“One thing I know from being in this industry this long is it can change awful fast,” he said.
Even in Bowman County, where oil has been a part of life for decades, they’re subtly feeling the effects of the slowdown and playing the waiting game.
Like Dickinson, Bowman County doesn’t have big plans for 2016, County Commissioner Rick Braaten said.
“As far as our road and bridge budget, that’s our biggest one, all we’re doing there for this coming year is maintenance,” he said. “We’re not doing any projects or construction in 2016. We had a feeling funds were going to be quite a bit lower. We decided not to do any improvements on our roads this year.”
Teran Doerr, the executive director of the Bowman County Development Corp., said she has seen people lose jobs, businesses report slower sales and more housing come on the market.
“It almost feels like it happened overnight,” she said.
A carbon dioxide pipeline planned by Denbury Resources to use for injection on older wells in the county is still coming but the project is moving much slower, according to Denbury representatives.
New England, like Bowman, had been planning for 2015 to be the year it began seeing increased activity from the oil business.
Two oil rigs were drilling into the Tyler formation west of the city in Slope County in 2014. If they hit, the town of about 700 people was bound to boom. But the wells didn’t produce and when the prices dropped, Marathon Oil cut its losses and moved on.
“Surprisingly, we are still doing well,” New England City Auditor Jason Jung said.
The city wrapped up the first of a likely four-year street and water project in 2015, Jung said.
The best decision the city made during the boom was not to overdo things, he said, adding that while new housing has sprung up and most new people who came to the area stayed, some are losing their oil jobs.
“The oil, we had some positive effects from it and we haven’t seen the negative effects,” Jung said. “We might be one of the few towns that might be that way instead of the opposite way.”
To the north in South Heart — Dickinson’s unofficial suburb — it was merely three years ago that South Heart Mayor Floyd Hurt stood with a shovel in hand and political dignitaries at his side to break ground on the new Dakota Prairie Refinery between his 300-person town and Dickinson.
Now, the refinery is operating but recently reported a $20 million loss traced back to low oil prices and lack of diesel fuel use in area, a crew camp in South Heart has closed and a planned massive facility for oilfield service giant Schlumberger is smaller than it was planned to be and very quiet.
Hurt said South Heart is still fairly happy with where it’s at, however.
“The best thing to do is just sit tight and wait and see,” Hurt said. “If it starts going up and things start generating again, then make plans to move with the times.”
During his State of the City speech, Baker called it “highly unlikely” that the area’s energy industry would ever again “relive the speed, volume and chaos” of the past oil boom.
And, if folks around the area are to be believed, they’re just fine with that.