8/14/2012 6:44 PM ET|
Texas city: A ghost of past glory
Port Arthur's oil refineries and chemical plants are humming, but locals struggle to find steady work. And some wonder if the coming elections could make a difference.
In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera stood in downtown Port Arthur, Texas, dwarfed by empty streets and row upon row of abandoned buildings.
"He was here saying, 'Look at what Rita did to this town. It's gone, just gone!'" said Melvin Branch, a local who was watching on TV and wincing.
The hurricane had indeed cut a brutal path through this Gulf Coast community. But it could not be blamed for stripping the former boomtown to a ghostly shell of what it once was. Years of neglect had already done that.
"It was all gone decades before the storm," said Branch, who had returned to his hometown after a long career away. "It is really depressing."
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In some ways, Port Arthur is like hundreds of American towns, cleared out by the decline of industry and the gutting of mom-and-pop stores. But Port Arthur tells another story: one where industry has thrived to the beat of the marketplace, while a community allowed itself to be left behind.
Prosperity and poverty
In the heart of the oil coast, Port Arthur is home to 13 refineries and chemical plants, responsible for producing a fifth of the nation's refined oil -- mostly gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
In the past five years, three of the city's refineries have undertaken major expansions to add the ability to process thick, sour crude from Canadian oil sands. Motiva Enterprises, which spent $10 billion on its expansion, is now the largest refinery in North America, able to churn out 600,000 barrels a day.
For the community, this means thousands of high-paying jobs, making it the envy of other towns. Average pay for skilled labor in a refinery is about $34 an hour.
"We meet council people from all over the state of Texas," said Harold Doucet, a Port Arthur councilman. "When we say Port Arthur, the first thing they tell us is, 'Oh man, y'all ain't got no problem with money down there.' 'Cause we've got all this industry. We've got jobs. We're rolling in dough."
But outside the refineries, options for good jobs are few. Port Arthur's unemployment rate is routinely parked in the double digits, consistently higher than that of the greater region, state or nation. More than one in five families lives below the poverty line ($23,050 for a family of four), relying on food stamps to get by. The population, now at 53,000, has been dropping fast. The air quality, while improved in recent years, is the source of long-term health problems; cancer rates here are 20% higher than the state average.
Downtown Port Arthur
Voter turnout is dismally low, often less than 20% for City Council races. In a 50-square-block area downtown, the only buildings that appear to be in use are City Hall, the police station, a Gulf Coast museum and, since 2010, a community training center. There's no place to buy groceries or meet a neighbor for a cup of coffee or a beer.
When Hilton Kelley returned to his hometown of Port Arthur in 2000, after a 16-year absence, he felt like he was in the twilight zone.
"To know that we have the largest oil refinery in the Northern Hemisphere yet one of the most dilapidated communities on its borders is just unimaginable," said Kelley, who founded the Community In-Power & Development Association to improve air quality and economic conditions. "I've been in communities where they don't have the industries that make half the money that these companies do, yet their communities are thriving."
Port Arthur has always thrived industrially. Located on the Sabine River along the Gulf Coast, the town was sited by 19th-century railroad magnate Arthur Stilwell as the ideal terminus for the Kansas City Railroad. Lumber and rice were shipped north; tourists came south for recreation.
The siting proved prophetic: In 1901, Texas drillers hit their first big oil gusher at Spindletop, a salt mound just 13 miles north, cementing Port Arthur's place as an industrial boomtown.
When Janis Joplin graduated from high school in Port Arthur in 1960, she may have rolled her eyes at the industrial grit and cultural conservatism, bemoaning, "What's happening never happens there." But compared with today, the town buzzed.
Business thrived, as did saloons, music clubs and restaurants. A strong union town, its schools were well-funded with refinery money.
Mayor pro tem Willie "Bae" Lewis, 68, tells the story of this era: They'd graduate from high school on Saturday, and on Monday half the class would start work at the refineries.
Port Arthur Mayor Willie Lewis
Training was on the job -- no small education considering that, for those who wanted it, a 40-year-career awaited, complete with good pay, job security, health insurance, vacation and sick days, and a livable pension. But refinery hiring practices have changed.
Now a technician at a Valero refinery, Lewis has put in 43 years at Port Arthur refineries and is already drawing retirement benefits from previous jobs. He recognizes that the guarantees he enjoyed are elusive today, however.
"Those days are long gone, long gone," he said. "We had 5,000 full-time employees. Now we're down to less than a thousand. They hire as needed."
A different way to do business
In 1982, the United States had 301 oil refineries. In the 10 years that followed, when demand for gasoline dropped and refinery profit margins slid, one-third closed their doors.
Others, like those in Port Arthur, remained profitable through layoffs, hiring back temporary, contract labor for scheduled maintenance. The practice stuck.
Today, most refinery jobs are through subcontractors and last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Benefits are spotty. Some subcontractors offer health insurance and contribute to 401k plans, but typically only after vesting periods. And when the jobs end -- and they always do -- so do the benefits.
"A lot of people don't understand what really happened to our city," said Doucet, the councilman. "What happened over the years is industry says, 'Let's reduce our liability. Let's not bother about providing any type of insurance or anything,'" he said. "You had a shift, and that's when our city started a downward spiral.'"
At the heart of the problem: Most of the refinery jobs go to outsiders, city leaders say. Nearby hotels are filled with short- and long-term workers from across the country. For residents, outside of retail and government, few other jobs are available.
An independent study commissioned by the City Council found that qualified workers were more likely to get a job with a refinery or a subcontractor if they lived outside Port Arthur than if they were residents, despite promises by refineries during tax negotiations to make good-faith efforts to hire locals.
"The majority of the industry workers, they don't live in Port Arthur," Lewis said. "If the city government doesn't have the good sense to put a compliance officer on staff to check these things, the companies are not going to do it. And that's been the trouble over the years."
The city has now hired a compliance officer.
Port Arthur, meanwhile, is currently $4 million to $5 million in debt. Lewis estimated that generous tax abatements provided to petrochemical companies during recent expansion negotiations will cost the city an additional $26 million over five years.
Over the years, critics say, refineries have invested little in the community.
At the same time, outside retailers have developed swampland about 7 miles north of the city, creating a shopping district that has edged out Port Arthur's downtown businesses.
"Port Arthur is a wealthy area," Lewis said. "But it looks like a Third World country."
Walking out of City Hall one day this summer, Lewis pointed to the 12-story Sabine Hotel. Once a grand centerpiece, it now rises like a haunted specter in an urban desert, its windows empty or broken, its facade faded.
"You see that?" he said. "It's looked like that for 40 years."
Asked why it had not been razed or renovated, he said only, "Good question."
Job security elusive
Kamorrah Bowie, 27, graduated from high school in Port Arthur and immediately found work as a health aide and as a night-shift convenience-store attendant. A customer helped her secure her first job at a refinery.
Enjoying the work and the higher pay, she navigated the training process to gain refinery certifications. But her refinery work has been only temporary.
"You don't have job security. You go to work one day, you don't even know if you're going to have work the next day," Bowie said. "And it has nothing to do with your performance."
In an effort to gain job security, she enrolled part time at a local college, Lamar State College, to study nursing. To meet her school schedule, Bowie took a job that could offer regular, yet flexible, hours, at McDonald's. She earns $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage, and gets just more than 30 hours a week.
But on that income, she needs help to pay the bills. Her apartment is partly subsidized by a nonprofit, and she receives $200 a month in food stamps.
"I'm stressed out right now," said Bowie, tearing up.
Her take-home pay is $740 a month. Her rent is $600. "I have to keep the insurance on my car. That's the only thing I did pay this month -- that's $55."
"I'm struggling right now. I'm struggling," she said. "My boyfriend, he's cutting grass right now. Hopefully the man he's working for will pay him enough money."
Bowie said she's too embarrassed to go to her mother, and her sister is in worse shape than she is, "because she has two kids." Her brother, Emery Bowie, 25, was killed in a refinery accident in 2007 while running heavy equipment for a subcontractor.
Like many in Port Arthur's younger generation, Bowie is not politically active. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 "only because he was our first black president."
She has not followed the president's policies and doubts that leaders in Washington, D.C., understand people in her situation.
"I've got so much going on with trying to remember when the lights are going to get turned off or when the cable's going to get shut off," she said. "Obama, in the White House, his cable is on. His lights are on.
"So I have to worry about my own self. That's being selfish, I know."
Port Arthur remains one of the few Democratic strongholds in Texas, and in the South, but few vote, particularly in local races.
This summer, Regina Drake, a local who registers voters, contacted Bowie. She asked about Bowie's school and her jobs.
"How do you feel about employment in this area?" Drake asked.
"It sucks," said Bowie. "You gotta know somebody."
Drake explained that the City Council could create contracts with the refineries that influence hiring practices and that the council could stimulate business activity so that services, such as restaurants and bookstores, would be available downtown, instead of miles away by car.
"These professional politicians -- if you call, they're going to call you back," Drake said. "And just put your voice out there: What kind of training programs can be out there? What kind of collaborations can be put in place?"
After a 10-minute conversation, Bowie said she would vote.
"I think my vote would make a difference," she said. "If I was to put my voice out there, it would be an extra voice."
Later, Drake said: "I think people are unaware of the power they have. Part of that is they don't feel they're a part of the society."
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