|Passion and Perseverance|
Conway County Judge
Steve Smith, President,
Simmons First National Bank
Conway County Judge
|"What has been amazing is how the industry, government and the community have all worked to overcome any issue ."|
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Passion and Perseverance
in Conway County
Amy Glover Bryant
and Susan Dumas
Conway County Judge Jimmy Hart is passionate about what the Fayetteville Shale has meant to Arkansas. Having served as a County Judge in the heart of the Fayetteville Shale play since 2001, as Past President of the Arkansas County Judge's Association and as a current member of the Association's e
Executive Committee, he has an intimate knowledge of what Conway County was like prior to the entry of the Shale Play and what it has taken to recruit and retain companies to the area. He celebrates what drilling for natural gas has meant to the state he calls home.
A down-to-earth leader, Hart took his initial conversations surrounding the Fayetteville Shale and the predictions of "great things to come" with a grain of salt. However, upon further research, he came to see what these companies were saying made a lot of sense. While they were in business to make money, it was clear they were also interested in investing in Conway County.
Judge Hart watched carefully.
The industry initially drilled five vertical wells in late 2004 which didn't work, leading to the need for experimentation with horizontal technology. Gradually, activity started to increase and so did results. "In 2005 there was a little more activity and then in 2006, even more activity," said Hart during a recent interview. "The middle of 2006 was when it got really hectic. Gas prices were extremely good, nearly fourteen dollars per one thousand cubic feet. In 2008 things got very active and very hectic." They also got really wet.
According to Judge Hart, the years 2008 and 2009 were probably the two wettest years Arkansas has ever seen. Eighty inches of rainfall for an area accustomed to no more than fifty-two inches per year led to a collision between construction in the Fayetteville Shale and Mother Nature.
"What has been amazing is how the industry, government and the community have all worked to overcome any issue," explained Hart. "We all realize that this is important work we are doing for not only Conway County, but all of Arkansas. The industry has been a great partner, we talk daily and together we often find what I like to call 'middle-of-the-road', workable solutions."
Boom or Bust?
Banker Monitors the Future of
Van Buren County
Amy Glover Bryant
and Susan Dumas
|Steve Smith, |
Community President, Simmons First National Bank
Life in Van Buren County is nothing new to Steve Smith, Community President of Simmons First National Bank. He grew up there with his four siblings. His father spent time both as a high school principal and an elementary school principal, as well as one of the original investors and directors of the bank at which his son now works. While Smith isn't certain how far his roots go back in Van Buren county, his grandparents lived in the county and now, after several years elsewhere, he is back and is the proud father of two children and four grandchildren.
What is relatively new to life in Van Buren County for Smith is the impact natural gas production has had on his hometown, on his family and on the business of banking.
Talk to him for just a couple of minutes and it becomes very clear that this is a man who has done his homework when it comes to the Fayetteville Shale Play and the natural gas industry across the county.
"I first caught wind of the possibility of natural gas production in Van Buren County at a Rotary meeting around the year 2000 when one of the gas companies was making a presentation on exploration in the area," said Smith. With a chuckle he continues to explain that the line where the exploration area stopped was the section line just west of where his house and property was located.
Eventually the play did grow to a point where Smith got involved in representing the interests of members of his family in talking about leases. "There was a time period in which the offers on lease bonuses were climbing and just kept going up. Of course, we signed a lease and then watched the bonus prices double and triple." However, through research Smith learned that the royalties over time are much more valuable than the lease bonus a land owner gets up front.
SMITH continued below
Job #1: Roads
Road repair, management and improvement has been one of the single most important jobs for Judge Hart in regards to the natural gas industry.
"We had issues with roads in our community before natural gas drilling began," said Hart. "These companies have worked with us and made some major improvements in areas that were unsafe regardless of traffic from drilling. We've eliminated blind spots, held community safety meetings, discussed common courtesy and reminded folks of the importance of obeying speed limits."
Judge Hart is also proud of what revenue from the Fayetteville Shale has meant to the entire state of Arkansas, not just in the area in which drilling admittedly takes a toll on roads. For instance, the tax revenue helps to fund the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality." It also provides funds for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation to manage roads throughout Arkansas, in cities and counties. "Every city and every county in Arkansas benefits from what is taking place in the Fayetteville Shale," he says. He admits that it is never going to be perfect, that not everyone is always going to be happy and that, literally, there are always going to be bumps in the road, but that revenues going to the state highway department every month continue to rise and that is good for Arkansas.
Job #2: Job Creation, Education for Our Future
Hart has worked hand-in-hand with the University of Arkansas in Morrilton and private industry to create an educational program that guarantees Arkansas is preparing young Arkansans for the jobs of tomorrow in the gas industry. From an inaugural class of 20, the program has grown to more than 200 and constitutes the largest program on campus.
"It is a great feeling to know we are supporting our young people," said Hart. "I'm especially proud to know that one young man who had to leave our area has been able to return and raise his family here because, due to the natural gas industry, he is finally able to apply his degree to an industry in his home town."
He readily admits that the more than a decade of work that he has put in as Conway County Judge hasn't always been smooth sailing but gives thanks for the blessings Arkansas has received and prays we are able to compete well in to the future.
"The goose didn't just lay the golden egg in Arkansas. Eggs were laid throughout the country and we are very much in competition with states from Louisiana to Pennsylvania," said Hart. He encourages everyone to educate themselves, pay attention and weigh all aspects of the Fayetteville Shale play as they develop opinions so that we, as a state, continue to move forward.
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|Smith from above |
As Community President for the rural communities that make up the north region of Simmons reaching from Bee Branch to Mammoth Springs, Smith has encountered numerous customers who have had their lives changed due to the Fayetteville Shale play.
"We've encountered numerous customers who are land owners," said Smith. "Some who had more land became very wealthy. Others were living very modestly on small pieces of land and all of a sudden have disposable income they never had before. Most are conservative and frugal with their new found earnings but almost all first bought a new pick-up truck."
According to Smith, production has also had an impact on land values. The land values have increased due to the value of mineral rights. Landowners are holding on to land longer creating a more limited supply of available property.
When asked if he has witnessed any challenges Smith points to the lack of good mineral ownership records. "We frequently encounter discrepancies in legal descriptions and mineral ownership in sections which are very complicated to resolve," said Smith. "The gas companies are very diligent and helpful in making sure those discrepancies get cleared up. They are great about working with family members to negotiate complicated ownership issues."
He also points to the great corporate citizenship of the gas companies including the help of crews and the donation of equipment after the tornadoes that devastated the area in 2008.
Economically, Smith says the county hasn't seen much in the development of new retail businesses. What he has witnessed is the blessing of new industry in a community that faced devastation through the closure of more than a couple of manufacturing plants.
"The shale play came just in time to help keep folks working. Over time people got jobs with the gas companies in trucking, pad construction and as bulldozer operators. A lot of jobs were created at a time when we would have been really hurting. In many ways these jobs were more important to the county than the benefit of leasing and royalties to homeowners because these jobs made a critical impact to the larger number of citizens who don't own land."
A realist who has obviously done his homework, Smith cautions that the natural gas industry is notorious for being boom or bust and feels that until our country starts using natural gas as a transportation fuel the price isn't going to rise enough to sustain drilling in counties such as Van Buren.
"I am hopeful that we will get some sort of infrastructure that will enable us to use it as a transportation fuel, especially for trucks. The cost is much less than gasoline and is less of a pollutant than gasoline. That would be a big benefit for us on energy independence and cost. With the amount of natural gas that has been discovered, the supply is just a function of going and drilling it. There seems to be virtually an unlimited supply for the foreseeable future if we have the infrastructure in place."
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