Katelyn Freil
News Outlet

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.: The director of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce said he has never seen an economic boom like the one sweeping north-central Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been in good times and bad times, obviously. I’ve never seen anything that’s had the economic development impact this has and the job creation,” said Vincent Matteo, who has spent more than 30 years in development work.

In the last three years, Williamsport — population 30,000 — has added about 115 companies, fueled by natural gas in the Marcellus shale.

It is an energy boom that could foreshadow what’s coming to eastern Ohio with its liquid-rich Utica shale.

The boom in Williamsport is creating lines at local restaurants and no vacancies at area hotels. In 2010, the Williamsport area was the seventh-fastest growing economy in the United States with a 7.8 percent growth rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The ranking is measured by percentage change in real gross domestic product by metropolitan area.

That has resulted in an estimated 2,000 new jobs in Williamsport, a one-time lumber capital that is best known as the home of baseball’s Little League World Series every summer.

The boom has had a big financial impact because of the number of workers landing well-paying drilling and supply jobs.

With 120,000 people, the Williamsport-Lock Haven area is well positioned in Pennsylvania’s so-called Northern Tier, a forested, mountainous, sparsely populated region of state parks, forest and gameland along the Pennsylvania-New York line.

Lycoming County, with Williamsport as the seat, has 521 horizontal wells in the Marcellus shale. Neighboring Bradford County has 1,041 wells, more than any other county in the state. Susquehanna County has 503 wells, and Tioga County has 746.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, Washington County has 597 wells and Greene County has 434, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records.

The black marine shale that is 384 million years old underlies Pennsylvania, New York, eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. It covers 95,000 square miles and is the second largest shale area in the United States.

It is named after a New York village near Syracuse where the rock is exposed.

The shale is 4,000 to 8,000 feet under Pennsylvania and between 50 and 200 feet thick. However, the shale is only 50 feet thick near the Ohio River. That makes the Marcellus shale in Ohio riskier and less appealing to drillers. Ohio has a deeper Utica shale that the drillers want.

According to some estimates, the Marcellus shale could hold 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If 10 percent is recovered, that’s enough natural gas to fuel the United States for two years.

New York has imposed a moratorium on drilling, but it could be lifted later this year.

However, drilling has proceeded with enthusiasm in Pennsylvania, with 5,270 wells started since 2006.

The shale is under 40 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

A report from the Marcellus Shale Coalition says the industry has created 214,000 jobs in Pennsylvania, citing data from the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Shale gas in 2010 contributed $76 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, a number projected to increase to $231 billion by 2035.

Optimistic estimate

According to a study by Penn State University, the Marcellus shale could provide 25 percent of America’s natural gas by 2020. That would make the Marcellus shale the No. 1 source of natural gas in the United States.

The Marcellus shale might be able to produce 17.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day in 2020, the study said. By then, it could be responsible for creating 256,000 jobs and generating $20 billion in added value to the state’s economy, the study said.

“This is truly a remarkable milestone,” said Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of a pro-drilling coalition.

Pennsylvania’s new capital

Williamsport now proudly calls itself the energy capital of Pennsylvania.

Lycoming County’s unemployment rate in January was 6.7 percent. Three neighboring counties — Tioga, Bradford and Sullivan — all had unemployment rates under 6 percent.

The growth has meant more sales tax revenue for Lycoming. Between 2006 and 2010, sales tax revenue increased by 10.4 percent. During the same time period, the state saw a 2.8 percent decrease overall.

More than 20 energy companies, including Chesapeake Energy Corp., Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Range Resources Corp., Southwestern Energy Co., XTO Energy Inc. and Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., are in Lycoming. Several have established regional headquarters in Williamsport.

An area on East Third Street, known as the Gold Strip, has been a benefactor, too. One addition was a Kohl’s department store. Last October, it was announced that a former lumber company site would be converted into a conference and tourist center.

Beyond gas companies, Williamsport experienced an increase in hotels, supply companies and restaurants.

A Marriott Towneplace Suites was built, specializing in long-term stays. Another motel was added.

Matteo said a Williamsport segment he calls legacy companies has benefited, too.

“You’ve seen the growth not only from the companies moving into the area, but from ... the ones that have been here, that have expanded their employment as a direct result of the natural gas exploration,” he said.

Alice Crane and Rigging increased its work force from roughly 50 to 75 employees four years ago to more than 200 now. The company also doubled its number of cranes and trucks.

RS Albert’s, a manufacturer of plastic products, expanded. It produces roller-coaster safety harnesses but now uses that same plastic to contain spills at well sites.

Caught off guard

The Marcellus boom caught Williamsport off guard in 2006-07.

Matteo remembered a meeting when a county commissioner mentioned activity at a courthouse where property deeds were being researched.

“There were these long lines at the computers and people are looking up deeds and we don’t why. Obviously, they were the land men looking up ownership,” Matteo said.

At one point, Lycoming officials traveled to the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area to meet with government, private businesses and citizens there to discuss gas exploration.

Matteo said he has been asked whether he sees money in the creation of energy jobs.

He said no. “I see jobs. I don’t see money … and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Doug Livingston and Caitlin Cook of the News Outlet contributed to this story. The NewsOutlet.org is a collaboration between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, the University of Akron and professional media, including WYSU-FM radio and the Vindicator (Youngstown), the Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).