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OUR OPINION Man camps - if needed - should be welcomed, not fought

As Williston preps for its expected move next month to ban man camps, Grand Forks should pay attention. That's because man camps likely loom in Grand Forks' future, too. If construction of a fertilizer plant gets the go-ahead and construction wor...

Our Opinion
Our Opinion

As Williston preps for its expected move next month to ban man camps, Grand Forks should pay attention.

That's because man camps likely loom in Grand Forks' future, too. If construction of a fertilizer plant gets the go-ahead and construction workers by the hundreds start to pour in, then Grand Forks should learn from Williston's policies and experiences with temporary workers over the past few years.

And in our view, the key lesson is this one:

Man camps beat housing shortages and overbuilding every time. That is, if the problem is how to handle an influx of hundreds or even thousands of temporary workers, then well-run temporary shelters-man camps-look like a big part of the solution.

Otherwise, a community can get stuck the way Williston has found itself today, with a surplus of brand-new hotels and apartments and no clear way of filling them up.

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In April, the Williston City Council likely will approve the second reading of a man-camp ban. The measure would "give man camps until July to end operations in city jurisdiction and two more months to vacate and clean up the premises," the Williston Herald reported.

As Williston Mayor Howard Klug told the Williston paper, "The message is, this is not the (Alaskan) North Slope. We have plenty of permanent housing here."

And that permanent housing needs the business of Williston's man-camp residents, given that some of the hotel and apartment developers now are facing foreclosure, advocates of the ban say.

First things first: Grand Forks' situation is different from Williston's and will continue to be so. That's because even if the local fertilizer-plant project does get approved, no one is thinking that the construction will spark a permanent population boom.

So, there'll be less incentive for developers to build permanent structures in Grand Forks to handle the influx of construction workers.

Even so, local hoteliers and apartment-building owners likely will lobby for man-camp restrictions, because such rules clearly would drive up their own prices and profitability.

And that's the kind of pressure the Grand Forks City Council should vow to resist.

Instead, if construction companies or other lodging specialists ask to set up man camps and pledge to do so largely on their own dimes, the council and County Commission should grant the requests. For as western North Dakota's experience showed, man camps or "crew quarters" can be not only an economical way to house and feed new workers, but also a safe and stable one.

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Out West, the Oil Patch workers wanted to keep their good and high-paying jobs, and the man-camp managers knew it. So, the camps typically had strict rules about drinking and noise-and the restrictions worked, because would-be violators knew they could lose their jobs.

From Grand Forks' standpoint, that's a better way of handling a temporary influx of workers, rather than watch rents go up and apartments get overcrowded all around town.

Plus, it's not like the workers would spend every minute in their temporary homes. Restaurants, theaters and other businesses would see sales increases, as the workers would spend some good share of their paychecks in town.

Man camps aren't "free"; Grand Forks would face increased sewage and other infrastructure costs. But restricting the market would generate less predictable and almost certainly higher costs, as generally happens and as Williston now is finding out.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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