Living on the edge: Garrison prepares for the future

GARRISON – Nestled between coal country and oil country, this quaint little tourist town has embraced the slow, steady growth of living on the fringe.

Best known for its annual Charles Dickens festival and Fort Stevenson State Park, the city of 1,500 takes pride in its agricultural and tourism roots.

But as nearby oil activity continues to boom and residents begin seeing changes to their way of life, there’s a mix of cautious optimism and fear about what’s in store for the community.

“A lot of it is just change. A lot of us aren’t used to that,” said Paul Schlichting, who serves on the Garrison Area Improvement Association board. “We all probably would like a little bit of the business, but we just don’t want the huge overnight influx.”

As Garrison waits to see how oil development may impact its future, local leaders are taking a proactive approach in an attempt to avoid the highly-publicized growing pains in neighboring counties.

Local leaders met with Parshall and Stanley officials to learn more about oil impacts, said Jude Iverson, executive director of the Garrison Area Improvement Association.

They also asked Tom Rolfstad, executive director of Williston Economic Development, to speak at the association’s annual meeting in January.

Garrison has discussed hiring a city manager. The city is also tightening ordinances and putting teeth in them so there’s more control over growth, said Chris Gratton, a city councilman.

“I’m all for growth, but I think it’s gotta be a regulated growth,” Gratton said. “(We need to) really, really keep an eye on it and monitor that growth because we will get too big, and we’ll have too many people and too many issues.”

Last year, the Legislature set aside $5 million to help new oil-producing counties. Once the number of active oil rigs operating in the county exceeds four, the county is eligible for $1.25 million to help with expenses related to oil and gas development impacts.

McLean County – which includes Garrison – was one of the counties in mind when the proposal was approved. As of this week, McLean County had three rigs, said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mineral Resources.

Not all of Garrison’s growth is related to oil, Iverson said. Tourism is up and more retirees are moving to the area. Since Minot’s housing was stressed due to the booming oil industry, some people affected by flooding last year moved to Garrison, she said.

Garrison Motel owner David Jeffrey said he’s seen an influx of construction workers because they can’t find housing in Minot. Some workers are even commuting to Killdeer, Tioga and Williston from Garrison until they can find closer housing, he said.

The increased motel and gas station business in Garrison has benefited the city, Iverson said.

The schools also show an increase in enrollment, and younger people are moving in, she said.

But the city’s residents are “kind of skittish” after seeing negative headlines coming out of Oil Patch cities, Iverson said.

A self-defense class is being offered in Garrison next month, partly due to concerns about the influx of new people in the state, said Karen Heinzen, who owns Escape to Eden Salon & Spa.

“We shouldn’t need to live in fear, but we do need to be conscientious and safety minded, even in our quaint little towns,” Heinzen said.

Learning more about the oil boom and how to manage it has eased some of the local concerns. Garrison Realtor Mike Matteson said he changed his opinion about man camps after visiting with communities that have them.

“I see that they actually are a very good solution to some of the temporary needs and, when they’re managed by the companies, from what we’ve seen, they do a very good job,” he said.

As Garrison prepares for its future, it needs to keep in mind its current residents and “our bread and butter for 50 years, which is agriculture and tourism,” Matteson said. At the same time, they can’t build a brick wall around the city and can learn from other oil cities’ experiences, he said.

“The difference is they didn’t have any time to react to it,” he said. “We do, and that’s where it could be a benefit to us.”

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