Most people never get even one chance to help start a new city, but Rapid City engineer Bryan Vulcan might get two.

The president and CEO of FourFront Design, the Rapid City firm that provided engineering and design work when the city of Summerset incorporated northwest of Rapid City in 2005, now has an even bigger project in the works.

Vulcan and his team at FourFront are part of a local group of investors and specialists in design and engineering who are working with a northwest North Dakota landowner to begin a new city in the Bakken oil fields near Williston.

They're starting from scratch.

The proposed Bakken Village incorporation has targeted an area on two major highways nine miles north of Williston. It is in the middle of the explosive growth and economic vitality tied to energy development in oil and gas.

It doesn't have any existing housing, which Summerset developers used as a basis for that town's incorporation. There is, however, a willing landowner and and a flood of well-paid oil workers looking for places to live.

That's an opportunity that doesn't come along often, if ever, Vulcan said.

"A fourth-generation landowner up there came to us after seeing what was happening in the Bakken with runaway prices for homes and planning that was inconsistent with long-term-sustainable communities and wanted to do something about it," Vulcan said. "They asked us to craft a solution to the crying need for affordable housing, and Bakken Village is the result of that."

The development team includes Olsen Development Co. of Black Hawk and its owner, Phil Olsen, a development specialist for 34 years. FourFront brought in Olsen for the experience the firm doesn't have, Olsen said.

"They're engineers, and they needed someone with a developer's background to take it to the next level," Olsen said.

It was an easy decision, once he looked at the potential for development and growth in the Bakken.

"I'm 59, and I've been doing this for 34 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Olsen said. "It's absolutely the largest market need I've ever seen."

Population present

Indeed, people have poured into Williston and Williams County from across the country looking for jobs. The city and county make up a "micropolitan area" — an urban cluster between 10,000 and 49,999 people — that leads the nation for that category in growth.

A Census Bureau estimate last year put the population of the Williston area at about 27,000.

But it isn't just the oil boom and demand for housing that matters. It's also the pay. Olsen said oil industry workers in the area made on average more than $81,000 a year, according to 2011 data. Related service workers were making more than $60,000, he said.

A survey in the market area concluded that about a third were interested in buying a house and, even more importantly, were likely to qualify for their loan.

"The oil workforce up there, 75 percent can afford a home of $150,000 and up, just because of their income," Olsen said.

Bakken Village, which would include a new downtown retail area with design, shops, office spaces and apartments, as well as a square similar to Rapid City's, would build the bulk of its houses with the purchasing power of the area in mind, Olsen said.

"Simply put, there's a considerable market demand for housing up there, in the affordable range, which we've defined in our sweet spot as between $150,000 and $250,000," he said. "It's a huge opportunity."

But it comes with challenges, including the need for authorization by the Williams County Commission. That work is in progress.

"Our challenge is making Williams County and their commissioners comfortable with making a new city," Vulcan said. "Our problem is that in North Dakota everybody is making promises of affordable housing and nobody is coming through. To some, we are just another group coming in to say we'll provide that housing but with no basis for trust."

Vulcan has experience in Summerset with the challenges of incorporation. That required an initial petition drive and a public vote, both of which were successful.

"Summerset had a pocket of people already there," Vulcan said. "The challenge was bringing them together."

Opponents of incorporation first opposed it, then made unsuccessful efforts to nullify the incorporation and dissolve the city. And contentious city meeting were the norm for the first few years of Summerset's life.

Some hard feelings among those who didn't want incorporation or opposed the way it was handled lingered.

No simple path

There was good and bad in having a ready-made population for a new town in Summerset, Vulcan said.

"We have the benefit of having a couple of housing developments under way. So it was probably a year or less that the developer was really kind of being the city staff," Vulcan said. "He'd come to us for engineering services. Then they went out and hired a city finance officer and started handing things over."

That was followed by creating a city council and mayor, and the shaping of other traditional municipal structures.

Starting without hundreds of people in developments, the process is likely to take longer in Bakken Village and require more time for the transition to a traditional city government.

"It'll be three to five years before we have an operating government up there," Vulcan said.

Meanwhile, they'll start by building an emergency services building for fire and medical response. They will provide space and facilities for Williams County sheriff's deputies, with the plan to eventually have the city provide its own law enforcement.

Infrastructure will include a wastewater treatment plant big enough for Bakken Village and other communities that might need capacity. 

The first phase of development would cover about 350 acres, and the second about the same. The cost of the wastewater plant, roads, emergency services and other key infrastructure would be $60 million or more.

If the incorporation plan is approved, work could begin this year. If that doesn't work out, other options could include working with the county to develop regulations that would allow for the high-density in an affordable way. Currently those zoning policies are not in place.

But he believes the best option is incorporation. And he speaks from South Dakota experience.

"We're really excited about the potential of this project," Vulcan said. "But it's not a done deal. We've still got to get the regulatory parts settled before we can move forward."
Source: Rapid City Journal

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