Job Promises Ignite Building Boom In Post-Merger Bartlesville
Friday, May 26th 2006, 9:50 AM CDT
BARTLESVILLE, Okla. (AP) -- The countryside view that Violet Newman had long enjoyed from her home at the edge of town vanished soon after all the new job announcements came.
In place of grazing cattle and deer, homes now stand in various stages of construction, saws whine and workers feverishly slap mortar between bricks in preparation for an anticipated flood of new residents.
"All this started last year," Newman says, testifying to the hurried pace of a building boom that is pushing this city on just four years after the loss of the headquarters of its largest employer, oil giant Phillips Petroleum.
The frenzy of activity follows announcements by a half-dozen companies to add more than 1,200 jobs over two years.
The city council approved tax incentives to jump-start home construction. By the end of March, 178 new homes had been built, compared with 126 for all of 2005. School officials are preparing for an enrollment boom by returning classrooms to an elementary school long used for offices and professional development.
"We are prepared, and we're excited about the opportunity to grow," said Superintendent Gary Quinn, who nevertheless can't say how many new teachers might be needed because no one yet knows how many new students to expect. The estimates range from 200 to 500.
Job announcements have come from Wal-Mart Stores, which has an administrative center and a major distribution center here, ABB, ClientLogic, Siemens and FTS Inspection and Engineering Services. But more than half the additions are expected in transfers from ConocoPhillips, the Houston-based company formed when Phillips and Conoco merged in 2002.
"Houston, we have no problem," a bank promises on a sign advertising loans in a new development of 3,000-square-foot luxury homes.
Most of the promised jobs are white-collar positions, paying between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, said Jim Fram, president of the Bartlesville Area Chamber of Commerce and Bartlesville Development Corp.
"These are jobs communities across the country would kill for," he said.
ConocoPhillips has already transferred about 70 of the 403 Houston jobs it plans to move here this year. An additional 250 jobs from the company's purchase of Texas-based Burlington Resources could come later, but spokeswoman Tracy Harlow said the exact number has not been determined.
Natacha and Quentin Buchanan moved here with their two young children from Houston, where they both worked for ConocoPhillips. They're still unpacking boxes but already miss the big city's sports and entertainment options.
They don't miss higher day care costs, heftier taxes or Houston's traffic.
"It would take 10 minutes in the middle of the night (to get to work) and about 45 minutes in the morning rush hour," said Quentin, who estimates his new commute will be about seven minutes.
The couple lived in Bartlesville before Natacha decided to transfer with ConocoPhillips to Houston, so they knew what to expect. But she said some of her Houston co-workers balked at moving to a city of only 35,000, 50 miles north of Tulsa on the tallgrass prairie.
"I think they were thinking they were going to work in a barn," she said with a laugh.
ConocoPhillips' complex of high rises dominates Bartlesville's skyline.
The city's future has been tied to the petroleum industry ever since brothers Frank and L.E. Phillips founded Phillips Petroleum here in 1917. The company employed nearly 10,000 people in Bartlesville before downsizing in the 1980s, Fram said.
About 2,500 people worked for Phillips here at the time of the merger with Conoco. The deal sent the company's highly paid executives packing for Houston, but employment largely remained stable after the merger, he said.
"This," he said, "was not a ghost town."
He attributes that fact largely to efforts made during the 1990s to diversify the economy, including voter approval of a sales tax intended to lure new development. The money has helped pay for incentives such as land purchases and construction of buildings that have been leased back to companies.
With the latest job announcements, Bartlesville also is seeing a resurgence in retail interest, Fram said. Calls that used to number once a month from potential new retailers have jumped to a dozen a day.
It's still not clear exactly how many people will relocate here and whether they will come in drips or droves. Many of the jobs are expected to be added during the summer months when children are out of school.
"It's not going to be the big rush like we thought it was going to be," said real estate agent Tammie Mooreland, who helped the Buchanans find their home.
But the competition is on.
Communities throughout the region are vying to capture the newcomers, even traveling to Houston to tout their selling points. Rental properties are hard to find, Mooreland said, and the housing market is so tight, one home she recently sold ended up in a bidding war.
It went for $8,000 above the asking price.