WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — Winter's chill is sticking around this spring in the landlocked prairie of North Dakota's oil country, but residents of Williston finally will be able to surf in Boomtown, U.S.A.
On Friday, the city opened a highly anticipated recreation center that officials hope will bring families to the area, which has long been a destination for people who want to work, but not settle down.
The 236,000-square-foot building isn't your run-of-the-mill rec center — complete with an indoor waterpark complete with a surf simulator — and is the product of a one-percent sales tax increase approved by city voters in 2011.
"It's the largest park district-owned rec center in the country that I know of," said Darin Krueger, director of Williston Parks and Recreation. Construction took 18 months and was budgeted at $76 million. The sales tax increase also added to the department's operating budget.
The waterpark nods to the source of Williston's economic and population boom, as representations of an oil derrick and the flickering orange flames of gas flares stand on an island between lazy rivers named after local waterways, like Little Muddy Creek and the Yellowstone River.
The center also has a turf field, basketball courts, tennis courts, a 200-meter track, an elevated walking track, a 50-meter pool, a daycare, a kitchen for cooking classes, a senior center, a golf simulator as well as a high-tech baseball pitching simulator.
"The Dodgers bought it a week after we did, so it's pretty cool," Krueger said.
Those behind the recreation center say it's not just for show and fun. It's about bringing families and community to Williston.
The oil industry reshaped Williston and other oil patch communities by bringing in tens of thousands of workers to town lured by an almost nonexistent unemployment rate and high-paying jobs. But as the population has boomed, so did Williston's reputation as a temporary home.
At times, the boom outpaced the city's infrastructure, leading to housing shortages and skyrocketing rent prices. So, many workers live in what are called man camps, rows of prefabricated buildings outside of town where mud scrapers for boots line stairs to entrances.
"When you have all these man camps, they're kind of a necessary evil, but you can't build a town on a man camp," Williston mayor Ward Koeser said. "If you just build a town on a man camp, you don't have any teenagers to work at McDonalds, you don't have a spouse who might be a nurse at the hospital."
"They might come here to find a job, but if you want them to bring their family here and stay here, you need to have quality of life," he added.
Krueger said 700 people attended the soft opening for the recreation center — which he calls "a game-changer" — earlier this week, and smiles abounded.
"You know, I haven't seen that many people in one area in Williston happy in a long time, we've had a tough road here, when the boom hit, it was tough," he said.