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Five Years Into Fracking Boom, One Pa. Town At A Turning Point

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The natural gas boom here in the U.S. and the controversial process known as fracking have brought jobs and growth to local businesses around the country. But five years into the boom, one northeast Pennsylvania community finds itself at a turning point. The town of Towanda, population 2,900, has seen some of its drilling, and the money that came with it head elsewhere. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, the community is trying to figure out whether the slowdown is a temporary pause or the beginning of a bust.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: You want to know how natural gas drilling has changed Towanda, Pennsylvania? Start with traffic. That's the first thing everyone who lives here will tell you about.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The traffic has gotten a lot worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The traffic here is horrendous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's heavy-duty truck traffic.

DETROW: But since the spring, there have been fewer trucks on Towanda's roads. That's because drilling in surrounding Bradford County has slowed down. All that fracking in Pennsylvania, Colorado and other states has driven the price of natural gas down to record lows. So energy companies have either moved on to western Pennsylvania or Ohio, where the gas is more lucrative, or just slowed down operations. That means business has fallen off in Towanda. Karen Parkhurst says there aren't as many people coming into her restaurant.

KAREN PARKHURST: Which is why never complained about the traffic because, you know, where there's traffic, there's people to come in your restaurant.

DETROW: Parkhurst's place, the Weigh Station, still does steady business, but it's pretty easy to find an empty table these days. She's had to scale back on some employees' hours. Parkhurst remembers the drilling boom's early days, when gasmen just poured into the restaurant.

PARKHURST: People just kept coming - drill bit sharpeners, drillers, Chesapeake people, Southwest Energy, all kinds of them.

DETROW: She and her business partner, Barbara Keeney, were shocked.

BARBARA KEENEY: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKHURST: And it just kept getting better, actually.

KEENEY: Yeah. Better and better and better.

PARKHURST: And it just stayed better. They just - stuff just kept falling in our laps.

DETROW: Other stores on Towanda's main drag benefitted too. Jan Millard works at a place called the New Shoe Store. She says the drillers who moved to Towanda from the South brought their culture and their money with them.

JAN MILLARD: About, oh, probably three years ago now, I had a guy come in, and he said: Well, he said, where are all your pull-on boots? And I said: Oh, I hardly ever sell a pull-on boot. And he said: Well, you better get some then, he said, because you're going to need them. And the very next customer that came in after him asked for pull-on boots again. And I thought, holy smokes, we better get some pull-on boots.

DETROW: But a boom has a downside too. More people will lead to more crime. Police Chief Randy Epler says his force has had its hands full.

RANDY EPLER: DUIs, bar fights, domestic issues.

DETROW: And rent soared too. Apartments that went for $300 a month in 2008 cost more than $1,000 these days. The rent has stayed high, even though the rate of drilling has fallen. Bradford County's gas is what's considered dry. That means it doesn't contain valuable byproducts like ethane and butane that drillers can separate and sell. So as drilling companies have focused on western Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the gas is more valuable, the number of new wells has fallen. Jan Millard at the boot store says the shift was sudden.

MILLARD: I had so many regulars. The same guys would come in every week. It's like they didn't have any place else to go but the shoe store. And they'd come in, and, you know, you'd get kind of friendly with them. And it seems like so many of them have gone, just gone.

DETROW: Nobody in Towanda thinks the drillers are gone for good. The town has seen booms and busts before - coal a century ago, timber a few decades later. Towanda's economic fortunes now lie with something beyond the town's control: the price of natural gas. If prices increase enough to spur more drilling, the current slowdown may just be a lull in Towanda's latest boom. If they stay low, however, it could be the beginning of Towanda's next bust. Scott Detrow, NPR News.

CORNISH: This report comes to us from StateImpact, a collaborative project between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy and issues on people's lives.

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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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