Chesapeake Energy Drives Oklahoma City's Economy

fromKGOU

Oklahoma City is enjoying a rebound. The city's pro basketball team is in the playoffs and the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country. But one of the city's leading companies, Chesapeake Energy, is in a tough spot because of falling natural gas prices. Local officials worry about what the fall of the company might mean to the Oklahoma capital.

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And now let's look at how plunging natural gas prices might affect another energy company and the city calls home. Oklahoma City has been on a roll lately. Its unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country. Its pro basketball team, the Thunder, has gone deep into the NBA playoffs. And the city has a world-class Olympic rowing venue.

Much of this downtown renaissance is tied to Chesapeake Energy and its CEO. But all is not well. There have been falling natural gas prices, revelations of some sweetheart financial deals and criticism from Chesapeake's big investors. These are sending the first waves of concern through a community that had grown used to the company's generous ways.

Here's Kurt Gwartney of member station KGOU.

KURT GWARTNEY, BYLINE: Downtown Oklahoma City was bustling last night, just before tipoff of the Thunder's playoff game with the San Antonio Spurs.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Go Thunder!

GWARTNEY: Fans outside Chesapeake Arena fill the streets in an area called Thunder Alley. But not everyone here wearing the team's sky-blue colors realizes the company name lit in giant letters on the arena's curved facade could be fading.

STATE SENATOR DAVID HOLT: The name Chesapeake is so ubiquitous around town, that a lost driver may think that they've ended up in Maryland.

GWARTNEY: That's Oklahoma State Senator David Holt.

HOLT: The name is everywhere because their generosity is everywhere, and the city has certainly benefited from their largess.

GWARTNEY: Holt was on the team of city leaders that pressed the NBA to give Oklahoma City its first major sports franchise. But he says it was Chesapeake Energy that made the difference.

HOLT: Aubrey McClendon and his co-founder with Chesapeake, Tom Ward, deserve a lot of the credit for bringing the Oklahoma City Thunder here, because they own 40 percent of the team. The wealth that was created by Chesapeake Energy is a direct driver of Oklahoma City attaining the status that we currently enjoy.

GWARTNEY: It's not just the basketball team that's tied to the money Chesapeake and its CEO have spread across the community. Marnie Taylor is with the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits. Her office is in the Chesapeake Community Plaza, a refurbished strip mall purchased by Chesapeake which now provides space for more than 20 charities. Taylor says the company is known for its philanthropy, providing almost a quarter of the area's United Way donations. But it gives more than cash.

MARNIE TAYLOR: Many nonprofits have board members on their boards of directors from Chesapeake. And I have actually done trainings at Chesapeake to teach their employees what it's like to serve on nonprofit boards in the community. They even want to train their employees. They really push those people out in the community to make a difference.

GWARTNEY: Taylor and other civic leaders say they're concerned. They're worried about Chesapeake's increasing debt and record low prices for its primary product, natural gas.

Chamber of Commerce president Roy Williams says he's optimistic the company will make it through this rough patch.

ROY WILLIAMS: We've seen ups and downs in the energy business. And companies, especially these kind of entrepreneurial companies, tend to figure out how to be successful at the end of the day.

GWARTNEY: Senator Holt says even if Chesapeake would disappear from Oklahoma City, it's already helped ensure the community's future.

HOLT: One thing we owe to Chesapeake is that they helped us grow into a city that probably could survive a catastrophe happening to that company, although I don't concede at this point that that's imminent.

GWARTNEY: Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon isn't granting any interviews. But if you want to see him, look courtside at the next Oklahoma City Thunder playoff game. He's cheering as much for his team as his city.

For NPR News, I'm Kurt Gwartney in Oklahoma City.

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