This is a four-part series released Monday, December 15 through Thursday, December 18.
The story of “boom towns” in Oklahoma is not a new one. Given the state’s great abundance of natural energy resources, many cities across the state can tie their economic ascension to the business of the extraction of local oil or natural gas deposits. The last era of explosive rural growth from fast oil money peaked decades ago (see figure below). Oil production plummeted throughout the ‘90s and early 2000’s. However, that trend has changed since 2010, largely because of the advent of new technologies that allow the extractors to reach energy deposits at much greater depths and distances.
With the new extraction capabilities and high demand for domestic fuels, energy companies are thriving. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the state is averaging over 10 million barrels of petroleum a month for the first time since 1988. In recent years, many communities in Western Oklahoma have reaped the benefits of the reemergence of the local energy industry, especially Elk City.
With the boom in the production of oil and gas, Elk City’s population and economy have begun to flourish. Companies are hiring. Workers, in pursuit of higher wages and steady employment, are flooding into the area. The U.S. Census suggests that Elk City nearly doubled in population between 2010 and 2012.
With this quick growth comes many domestic issues. Among the complications of explosive growth in a small town like Elk City, the foremost is creating enough housing to shelter the heavy influx of workers. For smaller booming cities like Elk City, the housing stock is limited. This contributes to the inflation of property values and rental prices. Several private entities have responded by erecting temporary housing units on the edge of town.
Additionally, with the fast growth, the city had to respond to the increased demand for municipal services. For example, there is significantly higher demand for public education from the families of workers settling in.
Similarly, this trend is most notorious currently in cities residing in the oil-rich regions of the Bakken formation, primarily in North Dakota. With their booms predating that of Elk City, facing similar housing shortages, the small booming cities have seen their rental pricings skyrocket far beyond conventional terms. In one example, in Williston, ND, Time Magazine Online reports that the average rent for a 700-square-foot, one bedroom apartment in the city costs an estimated $2,394 a month; far surpassing averages in major markets like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.
Further, because growing energy companies have offered a steady stream of higher paying jobs, both public sector entities and private businesses face job vacancies as their employees decamp for the better financial opportunities.
In a city like Elk City, the boom has created issues across virtually the entire community. Under these special circumstances, civic leaders have searched for innovative methods to stabilize aspects of the economy that have been affected by the energy economy. City leaders have sought to address the immediate, urgent needs like housing and basic infrastructure.
However, having been through the highs and lows of a similar oil boom and bust a generation ago, the city approached solutions with a conservative eye. They have invested in core infrastructure and other improvements that will benefit the future population, whether it continues to grow or contracts in the future.
They are also looking to capitalize in the moment to build for a future that may look very different. They have invested in a space port and other innovative ideas to help diversify their economy and position themselves competitively.
In only a few years, Elk City has reengineered itself as a community. The city is looking toward a bright future with a keen eye on its boom and bust history. Over the next week, I will share Elk City’s unique story—a community looking for answers amid intense growth.