Ponca City, Bartlesville trudge on after ConocoPhillips merger

Thursday, June 12th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

PONCA CITY, Okla. (AP) _ Shoppers bustle in and out of downtown boutiques and restaurants, and the real estate market is hopping.

The civic center is getting an $8.5 million facelift, in Mediterranean style. Copper archways cover glass doors that lead to plush municipal offices inside.

Ponca City doesn't seem like it has been hit by tough economic times, but the northern Oklahoma town has lost about 550 jobs since its largest employer, Conoco Inc., merged with Phillips Petroleum Co. last year.

``In Oklahoma City, that's the equivalent of losing about 18,000 jobs that pay $50,000 a year,'' Mayor Tom Leonard said. ``That's significant.''

Meanwhile, in Bartlesville, Phillips' former home, another transformation has begun since the two oil companies formed ConocoPhillips Inc. with headquarters in Houston.

The company still employs roughly the same number of workers in the northeast Oklahoma city, but executives at Phillips' headquarters have been replaced by computer specialists and finance workers. They're a much younger lot.

``It has the potential to change the town's demographics dramatically,'' said Pam Dunlap, president of the Bartlesville Chamber of Commerce.

Phillips and Houston-based Conoco combined in August in a $15.1 billion deal that created the world's sixth-largest oil company and the nation's third-largest behind ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco.

Since the merger, ConocoPhillips transferred Ponca City's finance jobs, shut down an experimental carbon fibers plant there and outsourced its gasoline credit card program.

In their stead, the company brought workers from its pipelines division to Ponca City, where it has a large refinery, and opened a gas to liquids plant that employs 177.

ConocoPhillips now employs 1,701 in Ponca City _ down from about 1,900. The cutbacks have also meant hard times for Conoco vendors, who have cut jobs after losing contracts in the transition, officials said.

The effects are beginning to show.

St. Mary's Catholic School, which provides preschool through 8th grade, has lost 21 students out of 191 this school year from ConocoPhillips transfers, principal Shirley Zink said.

Unemployment has risen to 7.7 percent, well ahead of the state and national average of about 6 percent, said Tim Burg, assistant director of the Economic Development Advisory Board.

But expansions at other companies, mostly manufacturers, have offset losses. Head Country Barbecue Sauce, MidAmerican Door and Precision Tool and Dye are some of companies that have recently added jobs in small numbers, Burg said.

``Ponca City is not just about ConocoPhillips,'' Burg said. ``They're a key part of our economy and we're thrilled that they're here, but we've got a lot more here.''

In Bartlesville, where ConocoPhillips still employs roughly 2,400, officials say the economy will get a boost despite top-echelon executives and their million-dollar salaries moving to Texas. The replacement employees will spend more of their money in town, they say.

``A lot of the buying power, the discretionary spending, was not spent here,'' Dunlap said. ``These executives are people who travel the world.''

The real estate business is booming in Bartlesville, just as it is in Ponca City. That's to be expected during times of transition, but sellers are finding buyers fast and at good prices.

``This is probably the biggest year we've had in Bartlesville,'' said Donna Skelly, who owns McAnaw & Co. Realtors. She bought the company in December 2001, a month after the merger was announced. ``I thought we'd make it, but I didn't think we'd do as well as we have been.''

Even high-end real estate is moving.

``Bartlesville's a great town for its size,'' said George Sheban, whose Night Sky Development is selling estate lots for about $115,000 per acre. ``There are many successful people aside from Phillips executives. They are calling us.''

Meanwhile, Bartlesville is preparing for a younger population. Monthly celebrations with food and live music are planned for downtown, which officials hope to rejuvenate with commerce and retail.

``Nationally, most musical arts organizations are looking to bring in younger audiences,'' said Lynne Burke, executive director of OkMozart, the annual classical music festival that attracts more than 30,000 residents to Bartlesville. ``That dovetails perfectly with our needs.''

Ponca City's fortunes have soared and crashed with the companies many times before, and residents were always afraid their largest employers would relocate.

Just a decade ago, Conoco, then a subsidiary of DuPont, employed 4,500 people in Ponca City. Before the 1980s oil bust, Phillips employed half of Bartlesville's 18,000 workers.

``The threat of Phillips leaving us has happened,'' Dunlap said. ``The streets are not rolled up. We're still thriving.''

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