The Bakken and the Bikini – What Aren’t We Seeing ?
“Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” Aaron Levenstein, associate professor emeritus of business at Baruch College (1961-1981).
Every weekday night David Letterman delivers his signature series “The Top 10”. Some nights are funnier than others; as are the numbered items since they each come from a different vantage point as “The Top 10” theme is spoofed. Recently Forbes announced it’s Top 10 – “America’s Fastest Growing Small Towns”. The criteria Forbes used in determining this list is based upon census data which was used to calculate the growth in population between 2007 and 2010 for every MSA (Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area) with fewer than 100,000 people. It’s no small surprise that Williston, North Dakota made this list, albeit No. 6. With expanded oil exploring, drilling, and production in the Bakken Shale Formation, folks are “Flockin’ to the Bakken” in record numbers. Overall, Williston, the Bakken epicenter, saw a 14.6% growth in population to 22,398. Unemployment remains virtually non-existent (below .9%) and median income is $55,396.
If you are in Watford City, North Dakota, just 40 minutes (depending on the truck traffic) south of Williston you are probably scratching your head and thinking, “Wait a minute, we grew from a community of @ 1,500 to a nightmare of @ 6,000 in the same time frame”! Setting aside all North Dakotan jokes here, even we in Montana can do the math…that’s a growth rate of….ummmmm….well, it’s more than 14.6%.
Forbes readily admits that their process in determining the Top 10 is flawed in that truly small towns in America are excluded from this ranking as MSAs are required to have at least a population of 10,000. Given the relatively rural nature of towns in western North Dakota, most communities impacted by the Bakken energy wave weren’t even considered.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can be sure that someone else does”, is a quaint, old small town saying that usually gives us a chuckle. However, it may be more than just a quaint, old saying! The Williston Herald, Williston’s local newspaper recently conducted a nonscientific survey whereby they posed the question to their local readership:
“What grade would you give local leaders on how they have managed Williston’s growth in the past four years?”
A They have done a great job. 8%
B They have done an adequate job. 9%
C They have done OK, but could have done it much better. 21%
D They have made many mistakes, and we are all in trouble because of it. 26%
F They have failed miserably, and need to be replaced. 35%
OK, before we all rush to grab our calculators and determine this doesn’t total 100%, the lost 1% is due to rounding.
Are the community stakeholders saying that the local leadership doesn’t know what they are doing and this survey is reflective of that sentiment? Or is the town simply growing so fast that normalcy is out of the question? To be certain these situations are often fraught with a lack of communication, isolation of community leadership, and an inescapable feeling of not knowing what the blank is going on. As Williston leadership reacts or proactively responds to this energy tsunami, there may appear to be a real lack of consensus among the local populace. Unfortunately these feelings all of which are part of feeling out of control, can lead to the collective misgivings and apprehension that Aaron Levenstein was right when he said, “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
If we are to truly and effectively leverage this huge economic opportunity for our communities, we need to get beyond announcing the misgivings and collective fears. Almost every day the Williston Wire and the mainstream media promote great and wonderful stats about the energy activity in North Dakota. Yet, at the same time a day doesn’t go buy here at Synergy Station that we don’t receive a call or an email from someone in the Bakken community who is at the end of their rope, because they can’t take it anymore. They want some normalcy, some predictability, some calm in the middle of this storm. Though it may be difficult if we work together I for one believe we can bring a bit of much desire respite without giving up on the opportunity. If we all choose not to focus on the hype and hoopla we will be in a position to clearly see the facts that matter most. Then we sort and filter down the noise and begin working “on the problem” and not “the symptoms”. Let’s look beyond the numbers, the stats and determine what they conceal – it is vital to our success.