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Boom: Northern Panhandle natural gas industry workers, businesses, communities profiting

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JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal: Roger Young’s produce stand along W.Va. 2 attracts gas workers and locals as well. JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal: Roger Young’s produce stand along W.Va. 2 attracts gas workers and locals as well.
JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal: Mike Sadler is a pipefitter from South Point, Ohio. JIM WORKMAN / The State Journal: Mike Sadler is a pipefitter from South Point, Ohio.
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To say that Mike Sadler goes where the work takes him might be an understatement.

Sadler, a 36-year-old pipefitter from South Point, Ohio, is currently working in the booming gas industry in West Virginia's northern panhandle.

He has been at it for the last 10 weeks, working at the Williams Energy Oak Grove processing plant in Marshall County seven days a week, 12 hours a day. His shift works from 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.

For the summer, his wife and child joined him in Moundsville. But now that school is back in session, they only visit him on the weekends.

“They're about three-and-a-half hours away,” he said. “They spent most of the summer with me.”

Work in the gas industry isn't difficult to find for an experienced and skilled worker, he said. But he is ready to make the next necessary move when the time comes.

“I can go anywhere, but there's good money to be made here,” he said. “It's steady work. I can't make this kind of money at home. And they're saying that the work will be like this for at least the next 10-15 years.

“They have wells all over the place. I can go from one to another.”

Sadler, like many other workers, finds his jobs through the pipefitters' union.

“There are jobs all around up here,” he said. “These gas plants are going up everywhere, gas lines, compressors, pump stations, everything.

“If someone wants to come here and work, there's plenty of it.”

Electricians, laborers, iron workers and pipefitters are among the many positions in demand in many communities that have been left sluggish after years of economic hardships.

One of Sadler's co-workers is nicknamed Pappy, a Virginia native in his 60s, and the wide range of workers is not uncommon.

“You run into a lot of people in this work, from their early 20s to their 60s,” said Sadler. “There are people from as far away as Colorado, Las Vegas, Michigan, all over. They're coming from everywhere to get a piece of it. A lot of them run around the same loop.”

Many workers are West Virginians as well. Of course, the Mountain State natives who have sold or leased their property for drilling are benefiting financially.

“A lot of local people are benefiting,” said Sadler. “They're selling their land for millions of dollars. They're getting rich.”

Not everyone is happy

The locals seem to be giving the gas workers a good reception, Sadler said.

“They seem to love us, at least the ones that I've run into,” he said. “It's giving them more money. Local businesses are booming.”

Sadler attributes the area's economic boom to the gasoline he and other workers buy, the money he and his fellow workers spend on groceries and rent. He rents an apartment, though some workers rent spaces to park campers and some rent hotel rooms. He rents week-to-week, as landlords in the area have become open to short-term and long-term renters.

The area has gotten to be too expensive, some residents said.

One Marshall County resident recalled that a favorite local restaurant in town sold its popular steak dinner for $16.95 before the gas boom just a few years ago. Now the same plate goes for $21.95.

Traffic has picked up, annoying some locals used to peaceful drives without sharing the road with large trucks.

A drive through Glen Dale at about 4 p.m. is a little more challenging now. School buses pick up workers at big parking lots where they leave their vehicles. Traffic is blocked while the buses pull out and take them to the well sites. It brings the traffic to a standstill sometimes, just letting the oil and gas workers get back from their job sites.

“Most call them pipeliners,” said one local woman who said she's grown worn from the increase in activity in her hometown. “We call them poop-liners.”

Making a living

Some businesses have found a way to capitalize on the growing population and surge in activity in the areas surrounding the Northern Panhandle because of the gas fields.

Joe's Pre-Owned Autos in Moundsville has room for about 125 vehicles on its lot that sits along W.Va. 2. About 60 percent of that inventory has been sold each month during the gas boom, it estimates.

At least half of its inventory at Lafayette Ave. is made up of large pickup trucks, the prime choice of many who work in the gas fields.

Roger Young could be considered a sort of one-man Census bureau for the boom.

Young has set up a produce stand along Route 2 in New Martinsville for more 30 years, and he's seen a lot of changes. One of them has been good for his bottom line.

Since the gas boom, he estimates his sales have gone up 20 percent due to his gas industry-related customers.

“The gas workers love this local food. Some come by every day,” Young said. “I welcome the new ones here, too. I've seen them from Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and South Dakota.

“They think this stand is something else, coming from where they're from. I have locals, and people that come from Wheeling, Parkersburg to buy stuff from me.”

A Marshall County Schools bus driver, Young has had to scale back his time at the stand, selling his produce from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. now on weekdays, since school is back in session. But he's still out selling peaches, corn, tomatoes, watermelons and other locally grown foods seven days a week.

Hotel and motel rooms in the area were few and far between. In the past few years, more hotels have been popping up, along with camp sites, and the hotels typically charge about $100 and more per night.

“Some of them would be lucky to get $30 per night, at any other place,” said one gas well worker. “Everybody knows what's going on up here and jack the rates up. Everybody wants a little piece of it.”

Full hookup camper sites at one makeshift campground behind an established business near Moundsville go for $500 per month, including utilities and trash disposal, which is more than what the average apartment rental in the area had been five years ago.

The property is accommodating approximately 50-100 campers currently, and the campground owner said he could put in at least 100 more down the street, but he doesn't want the hassle that would come with it.

The Sleep Inn & Suites in Moundsville, one of the newest and finest hotel offerings in the area, was built in 2013.

“There was a real need for a hotel here in Moundsville. We have a number of repetitive guests that mostly stay Monday through Thursday and go home on weekends,” said Sleep Inn & Suites Local General Manager Joni Grubler. “We also have some that stay 20-30 days. We already have some that have become favorite guests.”

Some of the hotel meeting rooms, which accommodate about 50 people, have also been used as training rooms for gas workers and management.

“The meeting rooms have come in handy for some of their workshops,” she said.

In addition to a daily newspaper at the counter, another unique and definitely local feature at the front of the hotel is an offer of “boot covers” to guests who bring mud and muck from the field back to town with them.

“We pride ourselves on having a clean hotel and keeping it as new as we can,” said Grubler. “We also start serving breakfast much earlier than usual to accommodate our guests that leave early.”

Ensuring its future

West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has lived in the county his whole life. He's been a champion of creating a Future Fund, which seeks to invest part of the riches of the gas boom back into the state. Legislation to create the fund was adopted during the 2014 legislative session.

“I don't want to see the same things that happened to us in the coalfields do the same thing to us (in the oil and gas industry) 20-30 years from now,” Kessler said recently. “We can't afford to be broke and last again. We should use it as a springboard to really revitalize and rejuvenate the future for our economy.

“We didn't do a very good job of it in the coal industry. We produced more coal than any state in the union — and the counties that produced the most coal are among the poorest in the state. We can't let that happen again.”

Kessler said the gas boom has been a welcome respite for West Virginia, which was once known as one of the nation's top energy producing states.

“It's really something that is needed as a boost to our economy,” he said. “It's especially important in what we've seen in some of the coalfields. Unfortunately in some of those areas, the ones that have been hit the hardest, they had not diversified their economy. The only employment opportunities they have had are closing. It's devastating their communities.

“I don't want to see the same things happen again,” Kessler added. “Some of the purposes of the Future Fund are for economic development and workforce education and development. The southern coalfields have been identified as a place we need diversification efforts in using the funds.”