Drilling for oil and natural gas in the Utica Shale is changing Carroll County’s landscape, its economic fortunes and its rural character. The county’s time has come, but no one can be sure what that means.
In the stagecoach days, travelers came to Harlem Springs for the “healing” waters that bubbled from the ground. Robert E. Lee and William Henry Harrison paid visits to the resort. The hamlet even had a college.
None of it lasted. The namesake springs lost their mineral potency by the Civil War, then ran dry, explained local historian Janice Lane. The college moved to another town.
Harlem Springs today is a cluster of houses along a wide curve on state Route 43, seemingly passed by traffic and time.
But a couple of miles away, at the end of a winding country road, a humming sprawl of white tanks and pipes is harnessing a new underground resource in this southeastern corner of Carroll County.
During initial production, the “Coe 34-12-4 1H” well generated the equivalent of 2,200 barrels of oil in a 24-hour period, according to its owner, Chesapeake Energy. That’s enough energy to supply 120 Ohio households for a year.
Five miles to the south, more wells bracket the burg of Kilgore, where workers have buried green pipelines in the pumpkin-colored earth.
“Obviously, we’re punchin’ holes in the ground and money’s coming out,” said Glenn Enslen, the county’s retiring economic development director. “And that’s driving almost everything that’s going on in the community. I mean, this is beyond huge for us.”
Drilling for oil and natural gas in the Utica Shale is changing Carroll County’s landscape, its economic fortunes and its rural character. With 39 wells producing and another 184 drilled or permitted as of March 23, it has more activity than the next four counties combined.
Carroll County’s time has come. No one can be sure what that means.
Heavy trucks rumble through Carrollton, the county seat of 3,200 residents, even on weekends. Except for Mondays, when livestock trailers run to the auction barn on state Route 9, most of the vehicles belong to gas and oil operators.
Amy Rutledge, director of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, can watch the parade from her office north of the village square.
“It really is all here,” she said.
Fifty new companies have joined the chamber of commerce since 2011. Savvy landowners with enough acreage have become millionaires by leasing their mineral rights to drillers. Restaurants, like Donna’s Deli on the village square, are packed by oil and gas workers. Developers have plans to build a Microtel across the street from the busy Days Inn Carrollton, and the county-owned Atwood Lake Resort in Dellroy is back from the brink of demolition.
“It’s been major, and I think it’s going to get way beyond what we can imagine in about six months,” County Commissioner Thomas Wheaton said.
Page 2 of 4 - The county’s sales tax distribution in 2012 was $2.55 million, up from $1.67 million in 2009, and the county made $1.8 million leasing the mineral rights on its property.
The unemployment rate has dropped a percentage point from last year, although at 8.1 percent it’s still higher than the state average.
“It’s an exciting time,” Rutledge said. “It really is.”
EnerVest, Rex Energy and Sierra Buckeye operate in the county, but Chesapeake Energy is the main driller.
Although tight-lipped with its comments to the media, Chesapeake has played the role of a good corporate citizen.
It has agreed to maintain a couple hundred county and township roads used to access wells. It donated a used Chevrolet Tahoe to the county sheriff and paid $200,000 to digitize records for the genealogical society.
Chesapeake also hosted a community picnic last summer, bought a champion steer and hog at the county fair and partnered with local nuns to enhance mental-health, adoption and foster-care services.
“I’m not shilling for the companies, I’m not their p-r. guy, but the care and concern that they have for community relations is huge,” Enslen said. “They’re just great guys to deal with.”
PLACE TO BE
Companies that supply equipment and services have followed the drillers.
Lima-based AMS Uniforms opened a store on state Route 43 in January.
Mike Curran, the company’s regional sales manager, had never heard of Carrollton before a rep for Bulwark FR clothing last year mentioned new opportunities in the gas and oil industry, which requires workers to wear flame-resistant gear.
A trip to a trade show reinforced the message: “Carrollton is the place to be.”
AMS built its business by making and selling medical scrubs. Now, it has its first store carrying Bulwark FR gear from coveralls, to jeans, to sweatshirts.
“A lot of people like the plaid shirts the best,” Curran said, standing amid his inventory. “It’s more of a corporate look.”
The store has four employees, counting Curran, and could add two or three as business expands.
The opportunities aren’t limited to clothing drill-site workers, he said. There are truckers, construction companies and surveyors, and the store sells non-FR clothing and promotional items, such as mugs, pens, and flashlights.
“It’s only going to get bigger,” Curran said. “It’s only going to get bigger.”
Down the street from AMS, Huebner Chevrolet had already experienced a gas-and-oil driven boost.
A shiny red Camaro sat in the showroom, but a big seller these days is the basic work truck, preferably white, the color favored by drilling companies.
Owner Scott Cole estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the dealership’s sales are to oil and gas operators. Huebner also services the vehicles.
Page 3 of 4 - “Trucks make money for them, so when they break down, they need them fixed ASAP,” Cole said.
Before the drillers became customers, the dealership got an initial boost from local residents with lease money to spend, although those sales have tapered off. Cole also sold the dealership’s discount lot to the builders of the new Microtel, and he leased his mineral rights, like most landowners you talk to around here.
It’s a big turnaround from five years ago, when business was tough and GM was headed for bankruptcy.
“Sometimes the beauty of a blessing is that you don’t know it’s there and then it happens,” he said.
The growth isn’t without trade-offs. The county government has seen more money, but also needed an assistant director of emergency management and additional sheriff’s deputies, Wheaton said.
In the rental market, inflation has priced some tenants out of their homes. A three-bedroom home used to rent for about $650 a month. The same property costs twice that now.
“The rental market is crazy,” said Betty Gray, a real estate broker for 40 years. “We don’t have enough houses for the people who have come in.”
Thirteen years ago, Paul Feezel and his wife, Diana, moved to Carroll County and built a home using timber from their property, straw-bale walls covered with adobe and other eco-friendly touches. He is also the chairman of Carroll Concerned Citizens, a local environmental group.
“We moved there because it was rural,” said Feezel, who grew up near Akron. “Clean air, clean water. You know, beautiful trees and outdoors. Great activities, nice neighbors.”
There are six well pads built or planned on properties near his home, and some have already been drilled.
“It’s just not the same kind of local feel,” he said. “It feels more like an industrial town.”
And he worries about accidents, pollution and the state’s ability to protect landowners and fairly apportion taxes collected on drilling.
Still, he takes pains not to criticize residents who signed leases.
“Until you’re in somebody else’s shoes, you don’t know if they have a sick family member, if that’s the difference between losing the family farm and keeping the family farm,” he said.
Feezel signed a lease himself. It’s likely his property would be drilled under because the state can force the participation of otherwise unwilling landowners, he explained.
Whether shale drilling becomes a boon or a curse in Ohio, Carroll County will be the proverbial canary in a coal mine, Feezel said. The community’s time has come.
Even with the activity so far, the real drilling isn’t expected to start until the pipelines and processing plants are completed later this year, and it will last a decade or two, maybe longer.
Page 4 of 4 - But some day the oil and gas wells will run dry, just like the waters in Harlem Springs.
“What we need to be thinking about is sustainable development,” Enslen said. “A boom — if you want to call this a boom — means there’ll be a bust.”
To sustain development, the county needs to attract companies that can use oil and natural gas, either as a power source, or the raw material to make products.
“Somebody a hell of a lot smarter than I am is going to have to figure that out,” Enslen said. “It’s easy to see the problem. It’s very cloudy looking for the solution.”
Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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