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After life in Oil Patch, retirees choosing to live elsewhere

Al and Sandra Solberg, formerly of Williston, N.D., say that life in Bismarck keeps them busy and fulfilled. They left and leased the farm northwest of Williston partly because of how the oil boom changed the rural countryside. (Submitted photo)

BISMARCK -- Ardell Horob is a happy man, hanging out at jam sessions in the warm Arizona sunshine in the winter and with family at his new Bismarck home in the summer.

Horob, 77, and his wife Charlene are snowbirds, but more importantly, they’re Bakken expatriates, among hundreds, if not thousands, who have left North Dakota’s Oil Patch in recent years. He misses New Town and the good friends he made as owner of the hardware store there for nearly 50 years. He says he might have never left in 2012 if the area had not been in such an upheaval, though his wife was plenty ready.

“It was so hectic out there — all the traffic, but I enjoyed the people and the hunting and fishing," Horob said as he ducked out of a crowded Yuma, Ariz., music hall to have a phone conversation.

But the die is cast; the decision long made.

The Horobs are gone in an exodus of people aged 60 and older. The trend large enough to make a noticeable blip on the population statistics, according to the Census Bureau of the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Director Kevin Iverson said even he was surprised to see that trend, especially in the over 65 age group that should have grown significantly between 2010 and 2014 but instead declined. The numbers were released in December.

The Williston region was expected to have about 350 or so more in the 65-plus group, but the Census Bureau estimate shows 282 fewer than in 2010. In the Minot region, the number was expected to increase by about 750 or more and instead was estimated to be about 60 fewer than four years previously. Dickinson’s area should have shown 225 more and instead showed about 30 fewer, the data found.

The same trend is true for the smaller communities in the oil patch, including Watford City and Stanley, but on a smaller scale, Iverson said.

“The closer you are to the oil patch, the greater the impact,” he said.

While it’s not unusual for early retirees to move around, Iverson said, “This is the impact of the oil patch. With these three main regions, we’re seeing both the greatest in-migration and the greatest counter flow.”

The Oil Patch communities are not only losing a valuable part of their population — those citizens most likely to be dedicated to church and civic organizations — in large part, they’re losing it to other North Dakota cities. Bismarck picked up 1,000 more in that age group than it should have, Iverson said. The same is true for Fargo and to a lesser extent, Grand Forks.

Al and Sandra Solberg are typical of that “one town’s loss is the other’s gain” phenomenon.

They left Williston for Bismarck in 2012 and jumped right in. She’s active in quilting and book clubs, and he’s a member of the Apple Creek Golf Club and the Elk’s men’s choir. They support musical productions and say they thoroughly enjoy their new community.

Al Solberg, 63, said he was ready to leave the farm northwest of Williston when a few good crop years and an opportunity to lease his land rolled together.

“It was dangerous out there with the roads and the traffic. I was out in my semi and had to jam the brakes hard three times and I never had to do that but people drive so weird,” he said.

Now, it’s hard to believe how much the Oil Patch has quieted with 130 fewer rigs drilling than at peak.

“You can take a left-hand turn in Williston again. It’s almost pleasant,” he said.

David Hynek, a Stanley area farmer and longtime Mountrail County Commissioner, moved to Fargo in 2014. The change in lifestyle caused by the oil boom was one reason, but not the only one. He and his wife Ginny were ready to retire and there was a fifth generation of Hyneks ready to take their turn on the land.

“It was all those factors together,” Hynek said.

His parents and grandparents retired in Stanley, but he says he has no regrets for not making the same choice in his turn.

“The first time I came back after being gone awhile, I came over the hill to the farm and turned into the yard. I saw all the toys out in the yard and I just broke into a big grin and laugh,” he said.

Tom Rolfstad, longtime Williston economic development director, now retired, ticks off quite a list of people who’ve left: “My doctor’s gone, my dentist, my accountant, my longtime mechanic. There surely has been an exodus.”

Still, he said, “The pipeline is full of people who are here,” to fill in the gaps, in leadership and professional positions.

Rolfstad isn’t imagining things. The region is losing its mature citizens at the same time it’s benefiting from an in-migration of younger people ages 20 to 34, many with young children. The ratio of Caucasian to others shifted downward in the past four years by 2 percent, now at 83 percent to 17 percent, Iverson said.

The state’s current population is estimated at 757,000, an increase of 82,000 over four years.

The data is not based on a door-to-door count, but on modeling, factoring in birth and death rates and including federal data that tracks migration in programs such as Medicare and income tax reporting.

Iverson said next December’s data should tell the tale of how the oil slowdown is affecting the region, whether the exodus of mature citizens continues and how many jobs it takes to support the population. He cautions that his numbers are extrapolations — only the 2020 U.S. Census will provide an actual head count.

“It’s going to be awhile before we know,” he said.

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