Skip to content
Be seen. Be heard.

MSU Profiles

MSU alumnus adapts to Bakken Boom

In 2010, Minot State University alumnus Steve Holen felt comfortable as McKenzie County superintendent of schools after five years on the job. He and his family lived in the quiet prairie town of Watford City in western North Dakota. Even though the farming and ranching community was confronting a slow, painful decline, life was comfortable and predictable.

But Holen didn't realize that an unparalleled oil boom was washing toward the region like a black tidal wave. At first, he just noticed some small ripples.

"In 2010-11, we started to see some smaller increases in enrollment," the Des Lacs native said.

Oil Boom III
What Holen saw was the energy industry returning to North Dakota with a shiny new pair of technologies that weren't available during previous booms in the 1950s and 1980s.

Horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing now enabled drillers to tap into the oil-rich Bakken and Twin Forks formations 10,000 feet beneath the prairie. Energy companies planned to capture its 7 billion barrels of crude to feed an oil-thirsty nation.

At first, the school district kept pace with the arrival of oil workers escaping the Great Recession that was brutalizing the country.

"Drilling rigs doesn't always correlate to students," Holen said. "Those are the guys who are here for a week and gone."

This first wave of workers left families back home, worked endless hours in the oil fields and lived in a ragtag collection of pickups, campers, RVs and man-camps.

But soon waves of families arrived, and the school district immediately felt the impact.

"Lower elementary (K-five) enrollment more than tripled," the superintendent said.

Altogether, grade-school enrollment shot up from 200 to 750 students between 2010 and 2015. Holen and his staff faced critical choices to stay ahead of the rising wave. He fell back on character traits shaped during an award-winning basketball career at Minot State in the mid-1900s.

"It's a matter of keeping a sense of calm, making sound decisions, embracing the moment," the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame member said.

"We looked at our options," he said. "We filled up our buildings, then we went to portables, then we went with an elementary addition."

The district's overall enrollment rose from 535 to nearly 1,400 during the upsurge. To handle the increase, school official reshaped the system's contours. The expanded elementary school would house K-three students. The old high school would become a middle school to handle grades four to six. And a new high school would house grades seven to 12.

The new $51 million high school will accommodate 800 students and feature state-of-the-art athletic facilities and a theater when it opens in January 2016. The Watford City Wolves will join the Class A ranks the following year.

The district hired 22 new teachers and two new administrators last year and another 26 teachers this year to handle the influx.

Watford City's population grew from 1,400 to 7,000 or 8,000 residents in the past five years. The total is projected to reach 15,000 in the coming decade.

Pattern Change
As the oil patch has evolved from drilling to servicing rigs, the workforce and its housing needs have changed also. Workers with families have replaced the itinerant army of male workers. Man-camps are being phased out, and fewer apartment buildings are being planned.

"Now, we're looking forward to the single-family housing phase," Holen said. "A lot of them are going to choose to stay, if the quality of life is there."

But not even the superheated Bakken play can escape the gravitational pull of market forces. Recently, crude oil prices dropped 50 percent, creating a vague sense of unease in the region. The superintendent, however, is confident that energy's second act will be better than its first.

"McKenzie County is at the core of the mature oil play, where the high productivity wells are," he said. "It's not like things have shut down. Things are extremely busy. Nobody expects them to abandon the idea of 50,000 wells. The drilling will continue."

The superintendent acknowledges that the boom has stretched the social fabric of the once-quiet community. Incessant traffic, overtaxed services and escalating crime have become troublesome realities. Yet he remains sanguine amid the head-swiveling changes.

"We've had a lot of tremendous families move in because of the oil industry," Holen said. "People in the region see Watford City as a progressive community, a place to raise children. It's a great place to live."

Personal Background
Holen came from a family of educators. His father was a teacher, and two of his siblings are teachers. He majored in math education at Minot State and later taught in Plaza, Des Lacs-Burlington and Fargo. He served as superintendent/principal in Bisbee-Egeland before becoming school chief in Watford City.

He holds a master's degree from North Dakota State University and a doctorate from the University of North Dakota, both in educational leadership.

Holen and wife Elizabeth, a licensed pharmacist, have four children — Ashley (13), Derek (9), Alyssa (7) and Avery (2).

He returns to Minot State each year when his kids attend summer camps. The physical changes on the campus stagger him.

"I'm really proud of my time at Minot State," he said. "The university gave me a lot, and hopefully I can give back."

He believes that MSU athletics helped him develop the character needed to be a successful school administrator.

"A lot of it is about motivating people, working as a team, communicating," he said. "It's having a goal and working hard toward it, persevering through things."

That resoluteness has served him well as a leader in a community whipsawed by the ups and downs of Big Oil.

"I've enjoyed every part of it," he said "Growth is better than decline."