Oil brought a population boom to Dickinson, North Dakota, where 10 new hotels, two strip malls, and new restaurants, schools and housing developments aim to keep up with the demand.
Oil brought a population boom to Dickinson, North Dakota, where 10 new hotels, two strip malls, and new restaurants, schools and housing developments aim to keep up with the demand.

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Community profile: Dickinson, North Dakota

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Oil brought a population boom to Dickinson, North Dakota, where 10 new hotels, two strip malls, and new restaurants, schools and housing developments aim to keep up with the demand.

This location in Southwestern North Dakota is a kind of poster boy for the philosophy “If you build it, they will come.” But in Dickinson, the quote should be: “If they come, you will build it.”

The oil rush created by development along the southern edge of the Bakken Formation has meant that the near-multitudes began arriving before the building was in progress. By most standards, the city is currently the fastest-growing in America. Here’s a look at the community and physician life in Dickinson.

Dickinson’s growing population

In 1970, the population of this town in far western North Dakota was 12,405. It went up gradually to 17,785 in 2010. Now, according to Shawn Kessel at city hall, several projections have it in the 40,000 to 45,000 range by 2020.

With the fastest-growing age group between 25 and 29, the need for housing, schools, grocery stores, shops and medical care has also grown exponentially. One example: The annual number of births at CHI St. Joseph’s Health has increased from 328 in 2007 to 611 in 2014. Other patient growth helped provide incentive for a new $100 million hospital that opened in December.

But determined leaders—and residents—are working hard to accommodate the influx in many other ways, too. So far, they seem to be succeeding. Among other changes so far, according to Kessel: Two elementary schools have been enlarged. One new school soon was filled and was expanded a year later. A new middle school is on its way in 2017. Ten new hotels, two strip malls and an increasing number of restaurants add to the mix.

The need for housing seems almost ceaseless, and he notes that “homes are going up like crazy.” At the Chamber of Commerce, executive director Cooper Whitman worries about the speed of construction and says, “Housing is a struggle.” Currently, rent for two-bedroom apartments is $2,000 a month, for instance. But he adds cheerfully, “We have a lot of families, but this is one of the nicest communities in North Dakota.”

Quality of life in North Dakota

“We have also invested in quality of life since 2004,” Kessel says. He cites the new West River Community Center, noting, “We didn’t just build a box. We built it to be architecturally significant.” And it, too, has been expanded. “It was originally designed for 1,700 members. Now there are 7,000.” There are more playgrounds, baseball and soccer fields, plus planned additions to the trail system around nearby Patterson Lake, complete with a nesting area for birds, with two towers for observing them.

Plans are in action for a downtown city square, and airport expansion is already well underway. This is where Daniel Sheps, D.O., chimes in. “Usually,” he says, “you get on a flight from a small town that’s almost empty, but not here. United and Delta jets are almost always packed.”

Sheps signed on as a hospitalist with CHI St. Joseph’s two years ago. His educational background includes the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine, followed by residency in St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, N.J.

Working in a rural area

South Dakota’s Western culture carries over to its wildlife —including wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

“I wanted to go to a rural area,” he says. He has also found that work hours are much less frenetic. And he believes that patients find it reassuring to be cared for by the same hospitalist during their entire stay. “Typically,’ he says, “I’ll admit the patients, I’ll see them every day, and then I’ll discharge them so they have the same doctor.”

Among other hospital serendipities is a community-built recreation center complete with pool, tennis courts, walking track and play area for kids. An ice rink is across the street.

The pluses continue, including the convenience of walking to work. “In New Jersey,” Sheps continues, “there are toll roads everywhere and parking is outrageous. In Dickinson, I can walk one block over from my home and be at the hospital. There are absolutely no commuting costs—or time.”

Dickinson is located along I-94, which runs across the state from Fargo in the east to central Montana. But, oil and population increases notwithstanding, the area still breathes the wide-open Western culture. “There are a lot of rodeos and bull riding,” notes Terri Thiel at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A January must-go-to event is the North Dakota Coyote Classic. For archeologist wannabes, there’s a dinosaur museum, plus popular fossil digs in nearby locations.

North Dakota’s settler origins began in earnest after the Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of free land to any farmer who moved there and cultivated his plot.

Besides Americans, early immigrant arrivals came from England, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia. The culture of the latter three, including festivals, food and the arts, remains strong.

But the most fun today, says Whitman at the Chamber of Commerce, is “seeing all kinds of people (and from as far away as) even Ghana and The Congo.”


Eileen Lockwood

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