Loss of oil-field jobs hits Elk City, western parts of state hardest
ELK CITY — Most of the companies that planned to build in a new municipal industrial park here pulled out when oil prices dropped, so the city let a local farmer plant the land with winter wheat.
"We weren't doing anything with the land, and the wheat looks nicer than tumbleweeds," said Jim Mason, economic and community development director.
The Elk City labor market, which includes surrounding counties of Beckham, Custer, Roger Mills and Washita, lost 1,249 energy sector jobs over the past year, a 30.9 percent decline, according to numbers from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. The data includes jobs numbers through the third quarter of 2015.
Elk City and the surrounding area have lost about 30 active drilling rigs since crude oil prices fell from more than $100 a barrel in the second half of 2014 to currently hovering below $50 per barrel.
Other parts of western Oklahoma have been similarly hard hit by low crude oil prices over the past year. The Woodward labor market, which includes Dewey, Ellis, Harper and Woodward counties, has lost 969 energy-related jobs, a 26.8 percent decline. Still, Elk City seems to be feeling the brunt of the downturn, said Lynn Gray, chief economist for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
“While we've had job losses in other parts of the state, the Elk City area seems to really stand out for significant losses,” he said.
During the boom, Elk City's RV parks and hotels were full of oil-field workers and the city had to bus people in from as far away as Oklahoma City to work at the Walmart Supercenter because there was a shortage of workers. Unemployment hovered around 2 percent, versus more than 6 percent today, Mason said.
- Related to this story
- Video: LACK OF ENERGY (2016-06-01)
The schools in Elk City are down about 85 students. Mason also tracks water meters, a good indicator of how many people have picked up and moved away — those numbers show about 200 households have left Elk City over the past year, he said.
“What we've seen is just a slow, gradual decrease in employment,” he said. “Some people who were here for the oil have left.”
Sales tax collections in Elk City were down 11 percent in May from the previous year, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Business has slowed at The Attic Door, a boutique on Main Street in downtown Elk City that sells trendy picture frames, throw pillows, jewelry and other gifts.
Store owner Lisa Miraglio, who has run the boutique since 1999, said low oil prices have taken a toll on business. She's launching a website for online sales to help boost her profits.
“We still have some really loyal customers we still see, but there's quite a few faces we don't see as often and others who have moved away,” Miraglo said. “There are some slow days where just a few people come in. So that's hard — it does make a difference.”
“For sale” signs dot the streets of Elk City's Swales Housing addition, just off Interstate 40.
Elk City recruited St. Louis-area-based developer USA Wealth Partners to build new homes in the addition in 2012 as the city responded to a housing shortage prompted by the oil boom brought on by $100 a barrel oil.
A few of the brick homes in the Swales development sit unfinished with boarded-
up windows, missing finishing touches like light fixtures and carpeting. The roar of tractor-trailers on the interstate is audible from the vacant houses at the end of the block.
Swales addition homeowner Quincy Hudson is one of the lucky oil-field workers who still has a job, working for a company that heats frack water for horizontal drilling. Still, Hudson has taken a 25 percent pay cut this year. He also has to travel farther to get to the drilling rigs.
“The rigs were here, but they're not anymore,” Hudson said. “There's a few rigs up around Oklahoma City, but the rig count went down so much, there's not as many frack jobs.”
Hudson can point out his neighbors' homes in the Swales addition with the “for sale” signs and list what energy company the homeowner was laid off from.
“The economy is terrible, and people are moving,” Hudson said. “But this house isn't going to sell until the economy comes back. It's rough.”
Tyler Harrison, a real estate broker for Elk City-based Western Oklahoma City Realty, has had so many new home listings over the past few months that he had to order more yard signs.
Many people are looking to downsize, and others are moving away. Any of the higher-end homes in the $300,000 price range are a tough sell right now in Elk City, he said.
Homeowners who bought at the top of the market a few years ago and don't have a lot of equity in their homes often find themselves unable to sell their homes for a price that will allow them to pay off their mortgage, he said.
“We still have buyers coming in, but it's a limited amount of people,” Harrison said. “There are people without much equity in their homes who are limited in what they can take.”
Mason remains optimistic about Elk City. It's his job as the city's economic development director to put a positive spin on things.
He likes to talk about how the Elk City has 82 T-ball teams, and how the city averages about 650 tourists in town each day during the summer months, numbers he rattles off with the ease that repetition brings.
He hopes the downturn will help him market Elk City to manufacturing and logistics companies that have shied away from Elk City in the past because of its labor shortage during the boom years.
“Now I can show them people they can put to work,” Mason said. “We know we'll get through this.”