WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Just over the Susquehanna River, along freshly paved streets, the taupe stucco facades of hotels jut out in rows, blotting out the old church steeples and glass storefronts of small-town Pennsylvania.
This is the new Williamsport, a city transformed from a quaint logging town into a bustling corporate hub by the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation below ground.
“It has truly been an amazing renaissance,” said Vince Matteo, president of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce.
Over the past four years, Matteo said he has seen more than 100 new businesses sprout up in the county, leading Williamsport to be named the seventh fastest growing metropolitan area in the country.
“I’ve been involved in economic development chamber work for 31 years and have seen good times and bad times, and from an economic development standpoint I’ve never seen something this good before,” said Matteo.
But outside of Williamsport, on the stretches of farmland and rolling hills, locals see little of the “boom” of the natural gas industry. Leading some to question whether the industry will have a real and lasting impact on local rural communities.
“The natural gas industry is extractive by nature,” said John Trallo, 60, of Sonestown, Pa. “There is a short-term boost for the area when they have to set up the wells, but once the wells are in the ground, the jobs move on.”
Trallo lives 45 minutes outside of Williamsport, in neighboring Sullivan County, where he said he sees little evidence of the positive economic impacts that Matteo and Williamsport experience.
Instead, Trallo said he has witnessed the slow decay of many staple businesses of the area as the demand for business follows “frackers” to Williamsport.
“The mom and pop stores, the campgrounds, the farming supply stores, we’re just watching them disappear,” said Trallo, who runs his own small business – a music lessons and instrument repair shop – out of his home. “The jobs that we’re losing, once they’re gone, are not coming back.”
While drill sites are located hours outside of Williamsport, workers use the city as an industrial hub, booking up hotels, and shipping out in company provided econo-vans to areas in Bradford, Sullivan and Susquehanna Counties.
With so many new temporary residents, Matteo said that jobs are not only created within gas companies, but also are taking hold within Williamsport.
“There is a trickle down effect,” Matteo said. “You have all these companies that are doing work on the Marcellus Shale, but they are spending money in our hotels, in our restaurants, and in our stores.”
Twenty miles east, in Moreland Township, Drake Saxton sees little of the trickle-down. Saxton said that the high presence of out-of-state workers was a clear sign that the gas industry wasn’t concerned about the local economy.
“Take a look at the license plates on the cars around here – Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma – if they (the gas industry) are so good at picking up the local economy then why are they all still here?” said Saxton, 64.
Saxton runs a bed and breakfast and said the negatives of workers coming in and out of town drowned out any small economic impact felt locally.
“Let’s talk about the rest of what the frackers are bringing us – an increase in crime, ruts in the road a foot deep, blocked off roads, increased rent – it’s like they are saying get a job with the oil/gas industry or die off,” said Saxton.
Saxton’s business was recently put on hold, when massive ruts created by the trucks carrying water to and from drill sites kept him from being able to drive on and off his property for weeks.
“I couldn’t get out, the ruts were this deep,” Saxton said, as he stretched his hands apart the length of his torso.
Though the business has slowed the past few months, as gas prices have risen, trucks still drive through the streets of Williamsport on their way to drill sites. Something Matteo said he has no problem dealing with.
“There are impacts (from this industry) that aren’t positive, but overall if you asked me if I want them to be here with the additional problems and issues, or not be here, I’d say I’d want them to be here, and have people have these additional jobs,” Matteo said.
But for Trallo, jobs are the last thing on his mind.
“This is just another boom, and once they (the gas companies) are gone, what do we have left?” Trallo said. “This area is going to lose its charm.”