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From Boomtown to Ghost Town?

SAYRE — Falling natural gas prices and the financial troubles of Chesapeake Energy have turned parts of Bradford County from boom to bust in relatively a ...
BRad chesapeake

SAYRE -- Falling natural gas prices and the financial troubles of Chesapeake Energy have turned parts of Bradford County from boom to bust in relatively a short period of time.

Bradford County has more natural gas wells than any other county in our state. Almost all of those wells are operated by Chesapeake Energy.

But the corporation's layoffs, falling stock price, and its recent decision to stop drilling new wells threaten to slowly turn boomtowns into ghost towns.

Downtown Sayre sits three miles from Chesapeake Energy's regional corporate headquarters. Empty storefronts now dot the main streets.

In nearby neighborhoods, homeowners who want to leave to find work, either can't sell their houses or sell at a loss.

"They bought when the market was at its peak high," said Stephanie Johnston.

Johnston left her job as an office manager three years ago, thinking real estate would be the perfect career at a time when natural gas was employing her neighbors in northern Bradford County.

"I seem to be catching the aftermath of the big boom that we had experienced," said Johnston.

She and many others say the region rose and fell with the fortunes of Chesapeake Energy, a company whose stock has fallen as its operations in Bradford County are tapering off.

Chesapeake is still taking gas out of the ground in Bradford County, but the corporation announced it won't be drilling any new wells in 2016.

Chesapeake's decline can be seen in Athens Township at the company's "man-camp" which once housed about 200 workers in modular homes.

"It was booming. The town and everything was booming," said Dale Wade.

Dale Wade and Josh Nichols pass the man-camp daily on their way to work at a cabinet factory near Athens. They don't see much there anymore, only an occasional security guard checking buildings.

"Since I first started, when I started working here, the place was packed. Now it's a ghost town," Nichols said.

"It's sad because there's a lot of jobs that's gone right there," Wade added.

Some blame the troubles of Chesapeake and the natural gas industry for a rise in job losses.

At the beginning of 2009, Bradford County's unemployment rate stood at 9.7 percent.

By the end of 2014, it fell to 4.4 percent.

Last year it finished at 5.1 percent and most there believe it will continue to rise while business is slow.

Joe Frank used to test water for gas drillers. When that business could only give him part-time work, he made a career change. He bought a restaurant in Sayre, and re-named it "Frank's Franks."

"Recently, I was laid off. And now I'm trying to operate a hot dog stand on the side and trying to make ends meet that way," Frank said.

"People are getting into different financial situations like bankruptcy," said Johnston.

Johnston hopes Chesapeake makes a comeback in Bradford county soon. Jobs and home buyers are hard to find.

"We become friends with our clients, and to hear their struggles and trying to get the amounts that they need, it's just kind of heartbreaking."

At its annual meeting last month, Chesapeake executives said the company could resume drilling new gas wells in Bradford County when natural gas prices get better, but no one at the company would say when prices will make drilling profitable enough.