Strong economy floats down on Parachute
Zach Baldwin ventured out of Parachute to find a good job, but found the best opportunity was in his home town.
Parachute now has one of the strongest economies in the county.
Two companies drive the economy there: Williams, a natural gas production company, and American Soda, which mines and processes soda ash and sodium bicarbonate.
For Zach Baldwin, a 1997 graduate of Grand Valley High School in Parachute, his job at Williams is a career in the making.
“I’ve worked in and out of the gas business since graduation,” he said.
His first job out of school was as a roustabout doing general maintenance on gas wells.
But he also ventured out from his hometown in search of better opportunities. He worked upvalley for a few years, in Edwards for a construction company, and in between Carbondale and Aspen for an excavator.
His coming to work for Williams was more than coming home.
“I want to become a biologist,” Baldwin said. Williams is giving him the opportunity to do so.
He attends Mesa State College in Grand Junction three nights a week. Williams pays his tuition.
“I’d like to get into the environmental side. I’d like to help our impact on the environment,” he said.
Baldwin is also pulling in a bigger salary at Williams than his upvalley jobs paid.
According to Williams district manager Steve Soychak, the company pays an average salary of $40,000 to $45,000.
On most days Baldwin spends a good deal of his day in front of a computer screen. The computer receives data from Williams’ 600-plus wells. He calls up the data on each of his assigned wells, which appear in a graphic representation on the screen, complete with gauges he checks for the flow of gas from the well. If a problem occurs that he can’t fix at the computer, he goes to the well and does the work by hand.
“I enjoy the work,” he said. Even his supervisor learns something new on occasion, and Baldwin likes that. “For me, to learn a new skill is always enjoyable.”
He aspires to reach management level but wants to stay in the field as well.
“I want to stay close to the workers,” he said.
There is another side to his work, a more personal side.
Baldwin’s family has been in Parachute for three generations. His father and grandfather worked in the oil shale business. In fact, Baldwin is monitoring wells in the Anvil Points area where his grandfather worked in the early days of the oil shale industry.
“My grandmother was born in the train depot when there was one here. I’m the third generation to graduate from Grand Valley High School. My family has seen the boom and bust,” he said.
He also has a few close friends at Williams.
“There are four guys I work with who I went to high school, middle school and elementary school with. Three of them I’ve known since before kindergarten,” he said.
Some older workers, like William’s Carla Kent, have managed to spend most of their working lives in the energy business.
Kent graduated from Grand Valley High School in 1970 and worked for Unocal for 18 years. During the oil shale boom days Unocal was one of the larger employers in town. Although it shut down in 1991, it retained 12 employees to staff the office.
“I was one of the lucky 12,” Kent said, who stayed on with the company until last year when Unocal sold its physical plant to American Soda.
She went to work for Barrett Resources last year, shortly before it was bought out by Williams.
Her son Rowdy, 22, also works for Williams.
“He went to Grand Junction to work for a phone company, but came back here because it was better pay,” she said. “People leave here, but a lot of them come back.”
Williams has 40 employees of its own, but over 350 contract workers who are employed by companies involved in drilling and production, Soychak said.
Of the Williams employees, about 80 percent are local, coming from Parachute, and neighboring DeBeque and Rifle. The majority of contract workers commute from Grand Junction, he said.
Williams is only one of many gas production companies working in the area. Others such as Alberta Energy, Calpine, and PDC employ another 200 to 300 workers, Soychak said.
According to a recently published report from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Williams has an annual payroll of $9.2 million in Garfield County.
The report estimated that over the next 20 years, Garfield County will receive an economic benefit from the annual wages Williams pays its employees worth $165 million, including $61.5 million in wage income, $78.2 million in tax revenue, and $25.3 million in royalties.
“We have always been considered the little town on the other side of Garfield County, and now we get to make some waves,” Baldwin said.
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