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With high oil prices, West Texas booms again

While most Americans are tightening their belts, scrapping vacation plans and getting rid of their SUVs, in oil-and-gas rich West Texas, folks are living large — again.
/ Source: The Associated Press

While most Americans are tightening their belts, scrapping vacation plans and getting rid of their SUVs, in oil-and-gas rich West Texas, folks are living large — again.

Most homes sell quickly and command premium prices. Hotel rooms are in scant supply. Gas guzzlers are rolling off auto dealers' lots. Jobs are plentiful in the oil and gas fields and the businesses that serve them.

Drillers and energy companies are reaping a bonanza from the runup in oil that pushed the price past $140 a barrel this summer. This oil town of just over 5,100 people about 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Odessa is awash in prosperity, and it is the same story across the rest of the Permian Basin, where about 20 percent of U.S. oil is produced.

So far, the boom has brought in hundreds of millions dollars to the region and more than 26,000 new jobs. In Midland and Odessa, the backbone of the region, the unemployment rates are the lowest in Texas, at just over 3.1 and 3.7 percent for July. That compares to 4.7 percent statewide and a U.S. average of 5.7 percent.

"Help Wanted" signs hang outside many restaurants, which frequently must turn away diners or close off sections when the crush of customers overwhelms the waiters and waitresses.

"There's just not enough people to work in the restaurants. The pay is so much better" in the oilfields, said Roy Gillean, owner of the Barn Door Steakhouse in Odessa and the head of the Permian Basin chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association.

While plummeting home prices and record-high foreclosures have hit neighborhoods across the U.S., this region is seeing the opposite. In Midland County, homes typically stay on the market for only a month, and prices are up 16.5 percent from last year.

That's not good news for many would-be homebuyers and others lured here by well-paying oilfied jobs.

Midland travel agent C.W. Porter and his wife have been looking for a home for about six months, which is about the time it takes to sell one in many other parts of the country. They have not found anything at the right price or location.

"Prices keep going up because they know they can get it," Porter said of sellers. "Everyone's got money."

Some oilfield workers are moving into trailer homes instead.

"If you're in the market for a travel trailer, good luck. They're flying off the lots," said Carroll Nall, who tracks sales for the Permian Basin Board of Realtors. "I'm having to shop in Houston, Austin and San Antonio to find one."

At Midessa Mobile Home Park, with space for 91 trailers, Bill Childers said he gets several inquiries every day from oilfield workers. "First come, first served. I've got everything filled up," he said.

Don Burrito's, a small Mexican restaurant, is crowded at lunch, and the gravel parking lot overflows with big pickups and sport utility vehicles — many of them newer models, some emblazoned with the logos of oil and energy companies.

Nationwide, RV (recreational vehicles) sales have fallen up to 25 percent because of rising fuel costs. Not so at Billy Sims Trailer Town in Odessa or other dealerships around the area.

Jed Heard, owner of a Cadillac dealership in Midland, said it's not unusual for someone to plunk down $65,000 in cash for a sport utility vehicle. Miles per gallon aren't much of a concern for people whose livelihood is linked to oil.

The dealership said it set a sales record last year, and July's numbers are 18 percent ahead of the same month last year.

Boom times are not new here. Neither are busts, and many people in and out of the oil business — homebuilders and developers among them — know the good times may not last.

The last big boom came in the early 1980s, a few years after one-time Midland resident George W. Bush ran for Congress and suffered his only election loss. Many new millionaires were made. Rolls-Royce opened a short-lived dealership in Midland. And many people thought the good times would roll forever.

When the bust came in the middle of the decade, folks in Odessa had little to feel good about. A popular sticker at the time read: "Please Lord let there be another boom. I promise I won't piss it away next time."

This time, individuals and municipalities with bulging coffers are planning for the future more carefully, said Waco-based economist Ray Perryman. "I really think they're following that bumper sticker," he said. "This is a much more measured, intelligent response than it was 25 years ago."

Worldwide demand, especially from China and India, and improved drilling technology could keep this boom alive for at least another decade. Experts estimate the Permian Basin has 70 percent of its oil left, or about 15 billion barrels.

Vida Simpson, a 59-year-old Kermit-area native, recalled earlier oil heydays, when the town had several grocery stores, two movie theaters and a slew of other shops. But the mother of two grown children also remembered the bust and the demise of her family furniture store. And she recalled the unfortunate young people who took oilfield jobs instead of going to college.

"I'm just fearful that they don't get caught up on a trap, like they did before," Simpson said.