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Marcellus Shale fuels small town's reawakening; Booming natural gas development has helped Towanda, Pa., shed its 'ghost town' image

Not so long ago, this town was just the seat of Bradford County. Now, it lies at the epicenter of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale region.

It used to be a sleepy little place on the Susquehanna River, 190 miles southeast of Buffalo. Now, it's a boom town.

Help-wanted signs plead for waitresses, mechanics, truck drivers. Once-empty storefronts are now occupied in this hilly borough, population 3,000.

Towanda has morning and midday rush hours, thanks to the columns of trucks bearing water, sand and drill pipe. A banner hangs outside First Liberty Bank & Trust: "Gas Rights? We can help."

"People used to call Towanda a ghost town," said Shannon Clark, a Borough Council member and real estate agent. "No more."

Across the county, unemployment is down. But crime, mostly alcohol-related, is up, said Sheriff Clinton Walters. There was even a shooting at a Towanda tavern a few months back.

"We didn't have shootings in this area unless it's family members," said Jim Meehan, regional housing coordinator for Futures Community Support Services.

So many title researchers have descended on the Bradford County Courthouse to examine deeds for gas leases that the county extended office hours and installed tables in the hallways to accommodate the crowds. The rotunda looks like a college library during finals.

"Hey, this was a dead area, so the excitement is mostly good," said Shirley Rockefeller, the county's registrar and recorder of deeds. Her office has even recorded several marriages of local women to Gulf Coast roughnecks, she said.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, 355 of the 1,368 Marcellus wells drilled in Pennsylvania this year were drilled in this rural county on the New York border. Bradford County also leads the state in gas production.

Suddenly, in an agricultural region of 62,000 people that had been suffering long-term population decline, decent housing is in short supply.

So many outsiders have flooded in that rents have doubled. Despite the expansion of mobile-home and RV parks, longtime tenants are priced out of the market.

Gas operators have booked most of the motel rooms here and across the border 20 miles north in New York, where the state has a temporary ban on drilling so it can study the controversial extraction process called hydraulic fracturing.

Even modest lodgings are pricey, and social-service agencies that relied on motels for emergency shelter are out of luck.

"We had to turn homeless people away because there wasn't any room," said Meehan, who coordinates low-income housing in several northern counties.

Chesapeake Energy Corp., the largest leaseholder in Bradford County, opened a 276-bed dormitory and training complex last month in Athens Township. Chesapeake previously leased virtually every room in five motels.

"This will take some of the pressure off the local housing market," said Brian Grove, Chesapeake's senior director of corporate development.

The $7 million Chesapeake facility is the latest proof the boom in natural gas is here for the long haul. Industry officials project that so much natural gas is contained in the mile-deep Marcellus Shale that intense drilling activity will be sustained for at least a decade.

These days, Chesapeake employs about 1,100 people in Pennsylvania, 500 of them state residents. It took over a vacant Ames department store south of Towanda as its regional headquarters, and has 22 drill rigs operating on 1.5 million leased Marcellus acres.

Chesapeake plans to employ more local rig workers as quickly as they can be trained at the new Athens Township complex, Grove said. After the first year, rig workers make about $60,000.

The housing complex "gives the employees a chance to relax and think about something other than drilling," said Mark Guerkink, a manager.

But natural gas is never completely out of mind. Framed photos in each room depict drill-rig scenes. Pennants remind workers to practice safe work habits.

Local businessman Nick Hurley runs the cafeteria at the complex, serving 700 meals a day, including lunches that workers grab on their way out the door. Hurley also provides janitorial and laundry services for the facility.

He can't believe his good fortune. His family owns two grocery stores, but business was suffering before the gas boom hit last year.

"Our backs were against the wall," said Hurley, 36.

He started catering to gas rigs, and the business kept growing. His family's companies now employ 160 people, up from 90 before the boom, including 35 at the Man Camp alone.

"This is wonderful," he said. "We grew up in kind of a repressed area. There is no way we could have built this up without natural gas."

Unemployment is dropping faster here than in any other county in Pennsylvania -- the jobless rate was 6.8 percent in October, fourth best in the state, down from 8.1 percent a year ago.

Yet not all is harmonious.

Traffic is getting on the locals' nerves -- aggressive driving is a new experience. And overloaded trucks are destroying roads, despite drilling operators' efforts to repair the damage. "Our roads are not built for this," said Mark W. Smith, chairman of the Bradford County Board of Commissioners.

The county also has experienced some environmental problems linked to gas drilling. State officials blamed Chesapeake for tainting at least six residential water wells with methane in Wilmot Township. The company now is supplying the residents with clean water.

Smith said he believed other contamination cases were being quietly resolved by the drillers and landowners.

"It's not all good, and not all bad," he said. "It's already reshaping the social structure. Some people are winners, some are losers."