Dre Holder got a good vibe when he arrived in Williston in search of a high-paying oil job. The 25-year-old from San Diego stepped off the train downtown and immediately saw two strip clubs adjacent to the Amtrak depot.
“Cool,” he said, eyeing the neon-lit bars before heading into one for a beer. “I’ve heard the ratio of men to women here is 87-to-1, so this is awesome.”
Most cities work to enhance entry points like transportation hubs with landmarks or other items as a matter of public pride and to market the communities to potential businesses. But first impressions may be beside the point in Williston, where the economy is exploding and jobs at the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations outnumber the takers.
While the exact ratio isn’t known, there’s no question that with the influx of mostly male oil workers, Williston is testosterone heavy.
Whispers Nightclub and Heartbreakers Gentleman’s Club stand out on the first block of Main Street, located diagonally from the chamber of commerce and the downtown senior center in the town of about 15,000.
“To be blunt and honest, I simply don’t like them,” Mayor Ward Koeser said of the bars. “I’m disappointed in the image they portray to the city. I wish they were not located in town, period.”
Whispers owner Grace Delling and Heartbreakers owner Jared Holbrook did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press or messages left for them at the businesses.
The dimly lit clubs featuring a rotation of topless dancers appeal to many among the throngs of men seeking their fortune in Williston, but some community leaders consider the businesses unmentionable.
“No comment,” said Kevin Paschke, executive director of the Williston Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t want to talk about it or get in the middle of it.”
Whispers, the long-established strip club, also offers casino-style blackjack and pull-tab tickets. Little-known around town is that half of the gambling proceeds go to Williston State College, a two-year school with about 415 full-time students.
“I’m not going to make a moral judgment on these businesses,” said Williston State College president Raymond Nadolny, who says the revenue helps fund scholarships, facilities and a fledgling hockey program.
“If we didn’t have this kind of fiscal resources, we wouldn’t be able to do these projects,” he said.
Nadolny said he did not know how much revenue the college gets from strip club.
Cresta Allison, who has been a blackjack dealer at Whispers for a decade, said gambling revenue has doubled to about $3,000 daily in the past few years, which is split with the college’s nonprofit fundraising foundation.
Allison, a 40-year-old single mother, works four nights a week and said her salary has increased from about $15,000 to $35,000. While the men-to-women ratio may work in her favor, she said she’s not interested.
“They are nice people,” Allison said of workers who have relocated to the area. “But they are not going to be here forever.”
Koeser said Whispers has been in business for more than a decade and the city council approved the business license for Heartbreakers about a year ago. The mayor said he cast the lone vote on the city council opposing the second strip club.
As a salve, the council approved a $1 million project to tidy up the grounds between the adult-oriented businesses and the Amtrak depot. But Koeser said no amount of landscaping can camouflage the strip clubs.
Debbie Hayden, who works at the senior center, said the elderly citizens are repulsed by the clubs across the street.
“Most of the seniors come in through the back door,” she said. “We don’t have trouble with the people but just the trash they leave behind.”
A nearly 90-year-old man volunteers each day to pick up beer bottles and other garbage left by bar patrons, she said.
Hayden said she had hoped that city leaders would block the second club from being established on Main Street, especially since it serves as a gateway to the community.
“Imagine getting off the train and the first thing you see are a couple of strip clubs,” she said. “I don’t like it, but what are you going to do? It’s Williston.”