As oil boom continues, Cuero sees ongoing growth
June 1, 2013 at 1:01 a.m.
Updated June 2, 2013 at 1:02 a.m.
CUERO - Three men balanced atop a framed-out building off U.S. Highway 183, their hammering and nail gun blasts ringing out across the dark and cloudy sky. Those construction site sounds and the smell of freshly cut wood were more than the telltale sign of Cuero's up-and-coming America's Best Value Inn, however.
They were also the sign of the city's continued growth.
DeWitt County is in the midst of an oil boom, with rigs going up, companies moving in and residents reaping other benefits. Still, some say with growth comes certain hurdles.
Cuero fares better than many other cities experiencing booms, mainly because the county eased into its oil activity, said Randall Malik, director of the Cuero Development Corp.
While Cuero began its rig counts in the low teens and worked its way up to the 28 that currently call the area home, other cities such as Carrizo Springs and Cotulla were hit all at once.
Still, certain obstacles are there.
Between drilling activity and Victoria's Caterpillar plant, for instance, DeWitt County is in the grips of a labor shortage, Malik said.
The county's unemployment rate dropped from about 7.5 percent in 2010, when drilling got its start, to 4.5 percent in April, he said. Throughout that same timeframe, employment numbers increased about 1,000 people.
That shifting labor pool affects all employers looking for workers, he said, but another issue - wage gaps - touch those not in drilling.
Oil and gas workers in DeWitt County bring in about $430 more a week than those in manufacturing, he said.
"Certainly, when it comes to manufacturing companies being able to keep employees and recruit new ones, it's a challenge," he said.
For Glenn Ruschhaupt, who co-owns Ruschhaupt Plumbing Co. with his wife, Linda Kay Ruschhaupt, a growing Cuero means less drive time for him and his crew.
Years ago, much of the company's business came from places such as Hallettsville, Gonzales and Victoria - cities that workers could drive to throughout the day but still make it home that night, he explained. Since the most recent boom took hold, however, most work takes place in Cuero.
A majority of what the company does now is municipal work such as water and sewer lines, he said, and most is related to Eagle Ford Shale drilling.
Glenn Ruschhaupt recalled laying out a business plan in case things didn't pan out in DeWitt County.
"I can still remember not very many years ago when I thought, 'Well, if things dry up here around Cuero, I can always go to Victoria. There will always be growth in Victoria,'" he said. "But now, we've got that growth out here."
The change is good, he said, explaining it brings employment opportunities that will keep some people in the Crossroads.
Still, he said, one hurdle the area must overcome is the recent traffic increase.
"I hear people who have been here longer than I have - and I'm 67 - say, 'Man, I just wish there wasn't so much traffic at 65 miles per hour,'" he said. "But that's just growth pains. They'll figure that out."
Inside the Rustic Rose Boutique, which opened on Esplanade Street last summer, employee Keli Miller doesn't have to look out the window to know what traffic's like. Her ears do all the work.
"The walls are thin. You can hear it," she said with a laugh. "You always know what's going on outside."
Miller, who lives in Weesatche and commutes to work, also said the increase in traffic - large trucks, especially - is an indicator of the recent growth.
New lodging, too, has played its role.
America's Best Value Inn should open about Aug. 1, said Christine Thome with Vantage Hospitality, the hotel's parent company. The in-the-works inn will offer 50 guest rooms, three of which are suites.
Malik said the hotel's developer plans to begin work on a Holiday Inn Express within the next couple of months on that same piece of land.
Meanwhile, Miller noted, others have taken to different means for lodging.
"The thing to do around here, if you have an open lot, is to get campers," she said of the region in general. "There are a lot of random hotels going in and an increase in people."
That increase brings many oil-field wives into the Rustic Rose, Miller said, and the shop caters some items to its clientele.
Oil-field onesies sell almost immediately, she explained, while wine glasses featuring phrases such as "rig life" and "spoiled oil-field wife" also dot the shelves.
"We sell a lot of little things like that," she said from her place behind the counter.
Looking ahead, Malik said, it's difficult to know exactly how long the boom will continue. Still, he said, Cuero should be in good shape.
If drilling ended tomorrow, for instance, or five years down the road, many DeWitt County residents have royalty payments that can carry them forward.
In 2011, nearly $100 million in lease payments went out to DeWitt County residents, he said, noting 2012's numbers are not yet available.
"That adds a sustainable element to things," Malik said. "I think we'll be OK."