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THE NATION

Smell of Gas, and Money, Returns to a Texas Town

Energy: Nation's crisis is Sonora's savior, for it sits on vast reservoirs--a mixed blessing of boon and bust.

May 20, 2001|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SONORA, Texas — Seems like everybody's bumping around in a slick new truck these days, past the "Help Wanted" signs tacked to downtown doorways. On the leafy outskirts of town, the trailer parks are filling back up, slow but sure. Come fall, the schools are expecting dozens of new pupils.

Breaths of prosperity are stirring in Sonora, a town built atop buried treasure. There is natural gas here, its vapors lurking in vast reservoirs below the grazing goats, cactus beds and limestone bluffs.

If the soaring price of natural gas is worrying much of the rest of the nation, it's good news in Sonora. The plunging wells scraped into these ranch lands might as well be sucking green dollars right out of the Earth.

"We're seeing them come in now for the high-dollar pickups, taking on $700 payments without blinking," says Mickey Schaefer, office manager of Broncho Ford in Sonora. "These same people were fighting last year to try and get $300 payments."

Across town, it's lunchtime at La Mexicana buffet. Tucked into a fake wood booth, Don Deel and Rick Taylor talk in booming tones. Like most old-time hands, they're half-deaf from years of working the clattering rigs without earplugs.

The men, both 50, grew up together and went to work in the oil fields. Deel's still there, but not Taylor: When an explosion blew his crew into the Gulf of Mexico, he knew he'd had enough of the business. He moved to Sonora and got himself a job with the town's industrial development department. It's safe and clean and quiet. But in times like these, he gets a little wistful.

"They're even asking me to go back," he tells Deel. "Y'all are hard up, boy."

"You better get yourself back in shape," Deel smirks.

"I can still tote iron," Taylor shoots back.

Two years ago, Sonora's unemployment loomed at 12%. Today, the drilling companies can't rustle up enough workers to keep pace with the demand. It can take as long as three months to get together a team and equipment to drill.

"If you're not working, you've got a drug problem or there's something wrong with your driving record," Deel says. "We're taking them from anywhere we can find 'em."

This month, he's leading a crew from Canada.

"That's how short-handed we are," he grumbles. He adjusts his cap, toys with his sunglasses and grins. "I'm sick of listening to 'Oy!' all day."

Workers are driving 100 sweaty miles to the fields of Sutton County, and 100 weary miles home. The two-lane highway slicing north through the mesquite to San Angelo--a ranching hub an hour's drive from here--is cluttered with trucks at sunrise.

"They're coming out of the woodwork," Schaefer says. "And there's still not enough of 'em."

The gas fields are sucking workers back into the countryside as well: gas stations, car dealerships, the liquor store--all the downtown bosses are scrounging for help.

The economic vigor of recent months is a rare boon for this town of 3,000. All over rural Texas, the ghosts of small-town commerce still rattle over cracked sidewalks like dried leaves. Families continue to swarm suburbs and cities, leaving the boarded-up dime stores and crumbling soda fountains of their hometowns to decay in the summer heat.

There but for the grace of gas. Sonora knows it's lucky.

This stretch of rocky ranchland is so remote that the car radio can pick up just one station--country and western--on the FM dial. Out here, the notion of claustrophobia belongs to another world: There are 200 acres of Earth for every human being.

Two years ago, when the rig count bottomed out, somebody might as well have thrust a spoon into Sonora and scooped its guts out. The population plunged from 3,500 to 1,300.

"It was ugly, ugly, ugly," says Taylor, manager of Sonora Industrial Development Corp.

People were fired in broad, crippling swaths: Thirty-year oil patch veterans who had jobs in the morning were unemployed by lunch, packed up and out of town a month later. "They went wherever the work was. They got out of it and they'll never come back," says Jim Garret, a lifetime resident who prepares patches of earth to be drilled.

"A lot of 'em, they were true to the oil fields, but the oil fields weren't true to them."

There were no more Tupperware or Avon parties, because nobody had the money to spend. There wasn't a trailer home in town, they say, and downtown houses stood hollow.

Sonora was drained. Students were yanked out of school--so many that the Sorona High Broncos dropped a division in sports. That was fine by most: Facing lighter competition, Sonora trounced through the state football championships. Everyone in town still brags about that; it was mild balm in a season of discouragement.

These days, one company offers a $1,500 shopping spree at the Wal-Mart for any able-bodied person who'll stick around for three months. There are rumors of $10,000 signing bonuses for experienced workers. The dearth is driving up salaries: A beginner can pocket $60,000 for a hot, hard year's work.

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