Rural West Texas communities want jobs, hope Trump delivers

By Betsy Blaney, Associated Press

This corner of rural West Texas is as reliant on farming, boom-and-bust oil cycles and declining segments of a bygone manufacturing economy as it is reliably red in the voting booth.

This Nov. 15, 2016, photo shows the downtown business area of Littlefield, Texas, which has lost many businesses due to a declining economy and a highway that diverted traffic from the area. Storefronts are either boarded up or vacant. Some residents want President-elect Donald Trump to loosen regulations on oil and gas production and to help stabilize cotton prices so producers can make it financially. (AP Photo/Betsy Blaney)

LITTLEFIELD, Texas (AP) — This corner of rural West Texas is as reliant on farming, boom-and-bust oil cycles and declining segments of a bygone manufacturing economy as it is reliably red in the voting booth.

The majority of voters in two counties were thrilled to see Donald Trump prevail, confident that the businessman and reality-show star could bring new jobs and economic growth to the area fast.

If his administration is anything like his campaign, bombast will be easy but real economic gains tougher, especially in this area, where plants and factories have closed in the past three years, leading to a non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October that's at least a percentage point higher than Texas' average of 4.4 percent — a positive direction from the previous month. Plus, commodities production remains volatile and oil prices have been low for more than year — both of which affect the region.

Another wild card for West Texas is the president-elect's promise to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement, which helped lower consumer prices on everything from fresh flowers to flat screen TVs.

"I would be so disappointed if what he does is not big," said Elaine Aragon, owner of a Jo Jo's Attic, a jewelry and home decor shop along the highway that runs through Littlefield, home to about 6,300 about 40 miles west of Lubbock.

The 49-year-old voted for Trump and is expecting he'll make good on campaign promises in 18 months or less: "I would be very disappointed in him if we didn't get major change."

Littlefield's denim mill closed in 2015, leaving 340 jobless. But the blow has been softened, as a dairy company is retooling the site and plans to create 150 jobs when it opens in 2018, and a former state prison now housing violent sex offenders employs about 100 people.

Mayor Eric Turpen said Trump can remove impediments for oil refineries and companies that want to export oil — important in a town where the industry accounts for about 10 percent of the town's economy — but he doesn't think it will be anything "miraculous."

Farmers, too, might get relief if Trump can help keep cotton prices stable, Aragon said. As recently as 2010, cotton prices were about $1 a pound, but have come down to about 72 cents per pound. But cotton production is part of a global market, so price control is dependent on more than any action Trump can take in the U.S.

Aragon had a far simpler assessment. "If the farmers don't do good, no one does," she said, noting that rising production costs have meant "they can't afford to make money anymore."

About 40 miles northeast in Plainview, population 21,000, some 2,000 jobs evaporated in 2013 when Cargill shuttered a meatpacking plant.

Mayor Wendell Dunlap said he isn't expecting Trump's administration to pump up entitlements that could put more money in residents' pockets. But he too agreed that dialing back regulations could make a big difference — including perhaps helping to lure companies to a planned 100-acre business park.

"I think what I expect is that we have an environment for businesses growing," Dunlap said. "There has to be cooperation to get things done."

Foy Wright, owner of a Littlefield collision repair shop, said he could possibly add employees at his location in the town of Levelland, a town 25 miles south of Littlefield that's surrounded by oil and gas production. Oil prices have slowly recovered in recent months, though Thursday's price of about $45 a barrel was still down from $112 as recently as June 2014.

The energy sector has been his "bread and butter" for years, Wright said, adding, "When the oil companies shut down, it hurts."

And then there's the question of bringing jobs back from overseas, something that concerns Tasha Pearson, who works at a Littlefield cosmetics business.

"I think if he runs our country like a business, we might have a chance," she said.

More jobs would help the entirety of the local economy — from grocers to real estate agents and the service industry. Helen Jennings, a 67-year-old who owns a liquor shop on a well-trafficked corner in Littlefield, sees another silver lining to reduced oil and gas regulations — thirstier customers.

"If there were more jobs, I'd sell more beer."

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