by Jessie Veeder
She wears ballet flats, jeans and a simple black top. Sometimes she pulls on her pink hard hat, an accessory she’s happy to wear because it means her project is moving along.
These days you’ll find her a block from the Watford City Elementary School buzzing around a construction site. She’ll have a notebook and papers under her arm, her cell phone will be ringing and her hands will be pointing in the direction of the next item that needs to be marked off a checklist that, when complete, will have successfully built a 42 unit affordable housing complex for essential service workers and their families and a top of the line day care and pre-school facility that will serve 200 children and employ 40 professionals in Watford City.
“This project is not just about a few buildings,” Katie explains as she looks out over the site humming with the sound of heavy machinery. “This is about growing this community into its future.”
She might be an unlikely sight on a construction project in a boomtown, but it’s immediately clear that what Katie Walters brings to the table as property manager for Wolf Run Village is more than experience, Katie carries with her a heavy dose of compassion and dedication, because she knows what it’s like to be uprooted.
In 2009 both Katie and her husband Jake lost their jobs as consultants in California’s Coachella Valley, a sprawling community east of Los Angeles. According to Katie, the economy had been hit hard, which resulted in their home dropping significantly in value and forcing many of her neighbors to move on. Upon the loss of their jobs the couple, along with their colleagues, founded their own consulting firm and Katie started clipping coupons and working to make ends meet.
In 2012 the firm was offered an opportunity to work for Bakken Housing Partners on several development projects in booming Western North Dakota, a place Katie only knew then for its cold weather.
The couple jumped at the chance.
“There was no one else in the firm willing to travel up here,” said Katie. “We thought, we need to go.”
So Jake began making visits to the area in February 2012. By October Katie and their two children, Julia, 8 and Drew, 5, packed up and moved into a singlewide trailer provided by their employer.
The family of four has been living there ever since.
“I know we’re the lucky ones,” says Katie, who sympathizes with the families who uprooted to work in the Bakken region, some of them living in campers or separated by miles.
Those stories fuel her determination and keep her moving forward in a community working to find balance.
More than a project:
The situation is complicated. Getting an affordable housing project off the ground in a booming community is a sort of high-stakes puzzle. The thriving economy and competitive wages have bumped the average police officer and teacher salary up over the minimum income requirements needed to qualify for most grants, and high construction costs make it difficult to keep rents low and stay out of the red.
But, according to Katie, the obstacle of cost has not swayed the community who is determined to fill a need.
“It’s a circle,” she says making an illustration on her notebook, explaining that providing affordable housing is the first step in recruiting new residents, who turn into the population and the employees that a growing community needs to attract retail and service businesses. Finding a way to expand the day care options opens up the opportunity for resident employment and growth even further.
The community is well aware of Katie’s illustration and has enlisted a variety of public and private sources to help fund the $6 million project. There’s still more fundraising to be done, but with all hands on deck the first phase of Wolf Run Apartments is complete and Wolf Pup Daycare broke ground on August 7th.
“Once you start the good going out here, it just spreads,” Katie says as she explains that the daycare and apartment project operate under Wolf Run Village, a non-profit organization run by a five-member board of community leaders. Katie works with the board, the city, county and school system to make decisions on fundraising, rent and who qualifies as tenants.
Ask her about deadlines and she’ll admit she’s pushing them, but it hasn’t been in the direction you’d assume.
“I have seven people moving in on Friday and Saturday. That’s the contractor’s deadline, but a few of them need to get in early,” Katie explains. “These people don’t have anywhere else to go.
So she pleads their case with the builders, explaining each unique situation and convincing the workers to do what they can to meet their needs.
“I’m so emotionally invested in this,” Katie says. “This is more than just another project to me.”
The same goes with the daycare project, a 17,000 square foot, two story facility that is scheduled to open its doors in the spring. When a kitchen wasn’t in the plans, she sat down with the architects and explained the importance of providing the children with healthy meals.
She did the same with her plea for kid-sized toilets.
In addition to overseeing the project’s completion, Katie will serve as the business manager for Wolf Pup. She receives two to three emails a week from parents looking for more information on the daycare.
Her biggest concern? Keeping it affordable.
One of her goals is to set up a yearly $10,000 scholarship to be awarded to families who fill the requirements.
“With a community daycare like this we need to plan for the lowest common denominator so it’s accessible for everyone,” she explains.
With a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Atmospheric Science, Katie admits that she, too, could be working for the oil and gas industry, but she’s dedicated to seeing this project through.
“Right now I’m the person available to get this done,” she says. “And I’m going to keep doing it the best I can until someone else comes along who can do it better.”
Katie doesn’t deny that moving to Watford City from a community of 600,000 has been an adjustment. Within one and a half miles of her home in California, Katie had access to three major grocery stores and five major drug stores.
When she moved to Watford City she found herself ordering some of her food online because the small grocery stores didn’t carry it.
This summer Watford City opened a CashWise grocery store and will soon be home to two new chain restaurants. Katie doesn’t take this for granted. She readily admits that those additions made her life easier.
It’s the same vision she has for Wolf Run Villages.
“Those who can visualize the future, those who can see that it will get better, those are the people who make it here,” she says.
And at the end of the day Katie appreciates small town living.
Ask her about the future and she’ll admit she doesn’t know where the next ten years will take them, but for now she’s got a job to do.
She’s got deadlines to meet.
“There are so many different types of people moving in and out of this community, it’s amazing to think how a place like this can impact the rest of the country.”
She picks up her notepad, stands up and heads for the door.
“I’m happy to be a part of the history.”
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in western ND with her husband, Chad.