Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Locals Sing the Boomtown Blues in West Texas and Beyond

Downtown Odessa Texas, despite having a roaring hot economy, some storefronts remain empty in the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Downtown Odessa Texas, despite having a roaring hot economy, some storefronts remain empty in the oil-rich Permian Basin.

The Midland-Odessa region in West Texas has the highest GDP growth in the country, the lowest unemployment in Texas. This is oil country, and oil is one of the most profitable products in the world. But if you ask someone what it’s like to live there, don’t be surprised to hear answer like this:

“It’s terrible.”

During a recent visit I heard that sentiment from oilfield hands and office workers alike. One roughneck I ran into  at an Odessa doughnut shop agreed to share his opinions anonymously. (He didn’t want his name included in this story because his company has a policy against talking to reporters).

“Everything’s overpriced, the food is overpriced, living is overpriced,” he said.

And that was just the start. His other complaints: housing is impossible to find, rents are high, traffic is terrible, crime is bad and there’s nothing to do.

“Everybody’s just trying to make as much as they can, wait for this boom to be over and get out,” he said.


The bad reputation has been around for a while. Texas writer Larry McMurtry dubbed Odessa “the worst town on earth” in his novel Texasville. But these days many natives – even those who may have defended the area before the boom – have taken to venting about local problems online.

“When people ask, ‘what is there to do here?’ people say ‘go to the airport and fly somewhere else,’ because that’s about the only thing you can do,” Midland native Jaret Burkett, who started the popular Facebook page Midland Texas Memes and Jokes told me.

Jaret Burkett created the popular facebook page Midland Texas Memes and Jokes.

Photo courtesy of Jaret Burkett

Jaret Burkett created the popular facebook page Midland Texas Memes and Jokes.

I asked him what are some of the good parts to life in the Permian Basin. “There are jobs,” he said.

Here’s where I need to mention that Midland and Odessa are two separate towns with two separate reputations: one is said to be more white collar, the other more working class. One is corporate, the other a little edgier.

There’s even a saying: “you raise your kids in Midland, you raise hell in Odessa,” Burkett said.

But the oil boom has pushed the two cities closer economically and geographically. And most of the problems people talk about in both towns aren’t happening despite all that prosperity, but because of it.

The Boom Town in Theory and Practice

“This is a pretty well know phenomenon, we have ghosts towns and boom towns,” Susan Christopherson, a professor of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, said when I told her about what I had heard from people in Midland-Odessa.

She said a lot of the negatives mentioned in doughnut shops and on Facebook pages, are mirrored drilling towns from North Dakota, to Pennsylvania.

For example, it’s a common complaint that there’s ‘nothing to do.’ And indeed, despite being economically vibrant, empty storefronts are still a fact of life in Midland-Odessa.

Christopherson said the reason could go back to the boom-bust cycle. In the 70s a massive oil boom flooded the region with jobs and money. In the early 80s, the bottom fell out and a lot of people lost a lot of money.

“Because of the boom bust cycle investors are scared off,” she said.

And when it comes to the housing shortage: “Who would build housing?” asked Christopherson.

“If they’ve been through it before, they know that there’s going to be a population decline and those houses are just going to sit empty,” she said.

In some communities that reluctance to invest can extend from individuals to entire cities.

Other times, local governments will respond by spurring construction. In Midland there’s even a plan to give tax breaks for a downtown skyscraper. But history indicates that could be a risky prospect.

“The question,” Christopherson said, “is who is going to be there after the drilling rigs leave?”

Tumbleweeds

Like the guy I met at the doughnut shop, the huge influx of businesses and workers will likely not stay around if this boom busts.

“Once everybody leaves it’s gonna be tumbleweeds coming down here,” he said, “places are gonna close.”

Guy Andrews is in charge of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Guy Andrews is in charge of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce.

To avoid such a fate, Christopherson said, boom towns need to diversify by bringing in other industries, and sock up money for lean times. But that’s a tricky proposition.

“To tell the truth that’s the exception. More communities end up in worse shape than in better,” she said. “By far.”

The people tasked with doing that are usually city employees and representatives of the local chambers of commerce. Earlier this year I met with one of them.

Guy Andrews is the director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce. He said there’s something about Odessa, underneath all the problems and prosperity that will ensure its prosperity. He described it as a kind of small town feeling. Something that might not be appealing to everyone but will convince some new residents and businesses to stay and invest in the community.
“If you like conservative American beliefs. You know, baseball apple pie, Chevrolet, it’s all part of who we are out here,” he said.

It’s just that currently, with the frantic pace of change, Andrews likened trying to solve the near daily addition of challenges to “trying to drink out of a fire hose.”

Support for KUT’s StateImpact Texas Roadshow comes from The UT Energy Institute.

Comments

  • Mike

    Great article, I work as a professional in the oil and gas industry, and relocated to Midland from a larger city about ten months ago. If I could describe the area in a single word, it would be terrible.

    Midland seems like a place where people simply work and exist, and not live. This place truly is lacking a great deal in terms of culture, restaurants, entertainment, and aesthetics that a city even of this small size, and especially given the economy here, should have.

    Those such as myself just see themselves as passing through on a temporary stop, and aren’t here to put down roots and invest in making the place more liveable.

    And I hate to say it, but those born and raised here seem very content with the place, and don’t seem to realize how sorely lacking of a place it is to live, since it’s all they seem to have known. I find that many don’t seem to have ventured must past a three hour radius from Midland.

    So you have these two groups of people, with neither really seeming to bother to make the city a better place to live. The place is stuck.

    • Bill

      Mike must have his head in the sand. Midland has decent shopping, good restaurants, and great churches. We were here as entrepreneurs from 2005 thru 2011, went back to Scottsdale, AZ for 2 years, and happily moved back to Midland a couple of months ago to start a new business. This place has the friendliest people on the planet, and the most thriving economy in the USA. Those two items alone qualify it as a great place to live. Real estate has gone up, but it’s still lower than most of the big cities. Quit complaining and get out and meet some of the folks who’ve lived here a while. I’ll be happy to spend the rest of my life here.
      -Bill

      • Mike

        Bill, regarding your opening statement, frankly, I could say the same thing about you.

    • NotaMidlandGal

      Thank you, Mike, for the honest information from a professional man who “ain’t from these parts.” I have the displeasure of living in Midland because my husband’s company made the greedy, self-serving decision to relocate here. Midland makes the business breaks attractive for non-oil companies, as well they should when considering the ridiculously high cost of housing, maddening traffic, lack of available entertainment, and the ugly-ass brown flat endless vistas extending for hours in every direction. The kicker is that the people who made the decision to live in this shit hole won’t have to be here much of the time, but the “grunts” in the company, along with their families will be here breathing in this frac-infested air and wishing for a drink of cold clean water. The best I can hope for is to get out of this BFE place before the inevitable bust happens, and it WILL happen. Did I tell you that I don’t really much care for this place nor will I ever let it grow on me like the parasite it is.

      • Rubi

        Thanks for your opinion. But some people actually like it here. No we don’t have the best things, but we adjust to what is here. Sorry that your husband got sent to this “shithole”, as you call it, but if you didn’t like it, you should of just told your husband to quit his job and look for a different job. But since he has his job and is supporting you, stop being so disrespectful about our fucking town, Asshole.

  • kyle_resident

    I lived in Monahans for 20 years, from bust to boom and bust, 86-06. The people who are from W Tx will hang on, and they know everyone else will leave. But there’s gorgeous sunsets, and friendly people, and I wouldn’t have wanted to raise my kids any place else.

  • they are all crooks and liars

    I have the fondest memories of time spent in places called ugly, the most boring ones of places called scenic.

    • NotaMidlandGal

      Then you should have fond memories in this VERY UGLY place.

  • Defender of desert

    Midland-Odessa is a “bloom where you’re planted”-type place. No, we don’t have the Smithsonian down the street but there are 10+ places to play golf, many social and professional groups, hunting leases, clay shoots, fairs, festivals, and such. Most importantly, we are a giving community. Most people I know volunteer, donate time, serve on boards, and have a heart for their individual philanthropies.
    Scenic it isn’t until the sun sets, and then it’s Mother Nature at her finest.
    So if you “can’t find anything to do,” my advice is volunteer, join a church, be an activist, take up golf, jogging, biking, something. It’s here but you have to seek.

    • NotaMidlandGal

      Oh, Defender of the Desert, go thump your Bible and say a prayer for rain. While you are at it, pray for affordable housing, bigger highways and streets to deal with the God-awful Midland traffic, and a nearby lake that HAS WATER in it!

  • just speeking

    I’ve worked there and the cost of living is crazy they are over charging for everythang,hotel and housing is unbeleavable,they are money hungry cause they know people need places to stay while they work in the oilfield. I wish I had the money to invest into the housing market there,I’d build affordable housing and hotels,putting the Greddy outta business. It would also keep people there after the oil boom slows down,living cost. Yet nothing last forever,oil boom/oil bust.greed,three are alot of good people that have come to work there that might stay if the housing market wasn’t so crazy,most good people leave cause they”er working to pay rent,high food cost,ect. Odessa and midland are great towns just wish they would stand up for those that are from there with the greddy people that just see money and not the beauty there,the people that have lived there all there lives can’t afford to move into these new apartment there build cause there over charging,enough said, I

  • thunder37

    Not a native to the area but lived here long enough to see both sides. Jobs are easy to come by so those that are doing the service related tasks are usually the folks that’d be unemployed in other towns. Those that are making “big $” in an oil related job would be the ones providing decent service in a service related job in other towns. Etc etc. So even if you invest in something to do In this area, who are you going to hire and how will you afford to pay them and make a profit? Truly a testament to capitalism in a nutshell here, as the rich figure out how to get richer. That being said, the older folks that are native to this area are what’s still great about being a Texan.
    Oh and my house I bought 4 years ago is worth twice what I owe. So that’s cool.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »

Economy
Education