By Mitch Borden
In the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, at the base of the Davis Mountains, the San Solomon Springs fill a pool at Balmorhea State Park. It’s considered a crown jewel of West Texas and people from all over come there to swim. Just five miles down the road sits a small community that shares the name Balmorhea and for decades, the sleepy little town has relied heavily on the cash spent by visiting tourists. Well, at least it used to.
For the last three years, Balmorhea has been caught in the middle of America’s busiest oilfield, the Permian Basin, after the oil and gas company Apache announced it had made a significant oil and gas discovery, called the Alpine High, in Southern Reeves County. This was followed by an influx of workers, drilling rigs, and flares burning off natural gas to the region.
While some locals have brought up environmental concerns with the emerging industry, others are focusing on the economy its re-energizing and the businesses it’s helping. Like, Joe’s Bar and Grill, where on a Saturday night a crowd gathered to watch teams of two try to lasso goats for cash.
After one of the ropers hits a metal trigger a goat is released and immediately bolts. Then the competitors have to quickly land their lassos on the running animal. One on the goats head and the other around its back legs. If they don’t, the team is disqualified. It’s all over in seconds and the whole time the audience lining the outside of the corral is cheering.
Every month, the Balmorhea bar holds a goat-roping competition like this one in its backyard, and tonight’s event seems to be going well. There are plenty of people laughing, a live band’s playing, and the bar is busy serving mostly locals and oilfield workers — which is a big change from how things used to be.
Norman Roman owns the bar and has lived in Balmorhea for about 50 years. He explained, “Balmorhea has always been a tourist town, but it just doesn’t have enough traction here to attract many tourists.”
According to him, before the oil and gas companies began fracking around the town local businesses struggled to draw in tourists visiting the Balmorhea State Park’s pool.
He said his bar used to be: “Pretty quiet, only on the weekends would people come around here.”
That’s because the pool’s about five miles outside of Balmorhea and other than the odd restaurant, there’s not a lot to attract people into town. To make matters worse, last year the state park closed the pool for the entire tourist season for maintenance, and recently the park announced the pool would shut down again for more repairs.
These closures could’ve been devastating for Balmorhea businesses — if the oil and gas industry hadn’t set up operations in the area and jump-started the community’s economy. According to Roman, he sees signs all over town that residents are doing better than they have in years thanks to, in his opinion, the oil industry, and its workers.
“If you take a look around there are new homes. You see more new cars. You see people out spending more money. So, there’s a huge difference.”
Roman said people used to fight over the few jobs that were offered around town, but now there are plenty of well-paying jobs in the oil field. Pat Brijalba remembers when Balmorhea was a healthy farming community, and he also recalls when it transformed into a place where residents just scraped by.
He said, “All my friends had to leave and find their life somewhere else.”
Brijalba is on the Balmorhea city council and is a lifelong resident. Agriculture was the town’s main economic driver until the ’60s when farms began to drop off. Once that happened, Balmorhea saw its population of about a 1,000 fall to around half that over the next few decades.
Then for a long time, he said, the region was “just idle cotton fields. It was nothing. It was dead. And then [now] the oil discovery has energized the whole area.”
Once the Permian Basin’s oil boom reached south to Balmorhea in 2016, the community turned a corner. It went from a town that relied on infrequent tourist wandering into town after a day of swimming to being filled to the brim with oil field workers and their RVs.
The workers aren’t just taking up space either. They’re spending money all around town on food, beer, and at the new laundromat among other things. All of which is majorly boosting the local economy. A decade ago, the City of Balmorhea collected about $27,000 in sales tax a year. In the last five months, it’s collected more than $67,000 according to the Texas Comptroller’s office.
In general, there are just more people around Balmorhea, which is obvious since RVs take up almost every nook and cranny of the town. There’s even a slight “traffic jam” when workers return from the oil fields at the end of the day, which is not something would’ve happened a couple of years ago.
Longtime resident James Garlick definitely feels like things are different around town now. It’s no longer a place where residents know everyone living in the community and a stranger can be spotted a mile away. But, he said changing a place’s character is something the oil industry’s known for.
“The oil field’s notorious for that. Whether it’s in Alaska or wherever.”
While wearing a cowboy hat and large belt buckle, Garlick shows off his farm where he has a few young cows, a donkey, a garden and a small RV Park, which used to be a corral where he practiced his lassoing.
Walking by the RVs Garlick said, “We have some of these guys who are welders, some of them are operators, but they’re all good people.”
He tore out his roping arena to build the RV park, which can hold up to 14 trailers, a few years ago and charges around $500 a week from each tenant. The money is good for a retired school teacher, but Garlick admits he misses practicing roping in his backyard.
he said, “I loved to ride my horses and stuff, but this thing makes more money than my roping does. I promise you that.”
Garlick would be okay if the oil industry never left town, which seems like a sentiment shared by others throughout Balmorhea. But, even though the small community may be bringing in more cash than it’s used to right now, many know that may not last forever.
If the day does come when drilling in the area slows down, residents believe the current boost from the oil industry will have lasting positive effects on the town’s future.