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The Bakken Shale Oil Boom Floods Rural Banks With Cash

They’re moving beyond crop loans as oil riches attract developers
The Bakken Shale Oil Boom Floods Rural Banks With Cash
Photograph by Ben Grieme for Bloomberg Businessweek

In his office on the second floor of a glass-encased building on North Main Street in Watford City, N.D., Stephen Stenehjem rolls out a map of a proposed multimillion-dollar residential development and shakes his head in disbelief. “My dad would have been very pleased,” says Stenehjem, a third-generation banker and the chief executive officer of First International Bank & Trust. “For 25 years, our focus as a community bank was to help keep our small town alive. So it has been really fun to see this oil come back.”

Once a depressed town of 1,700 in what was America’s least-visited state, Watford City and its neighbors are at the center of North Dakota’s oil and gas boom. While about 470 banks across the U.S. have folded in the past five years, those serving America’s new fracking economy have seen explosive growth. Oilfield workers carrying paychecks, investors looking to build, and farmers enjoying mineral-rights payments are pouring money into banks. First International, with $1.3 billion in assets and 21 branches in North Dakota, Arizona, and Minnesota, hired 65 employees over the past year, including lenders, trust officers, and insurance agents, and plans to add 30 more this year. “It’s fun to be a banker in North Dakota,” Stenehjem says. “Even six or seven years ago, if there was a new pole barn going up in the county, I knew about it. Now I can’t keep track of everything.”