People are indeed saying ‘Yes!’ to Weatherford, the fastest-growing city in the U.S., which according to the U.S. Census Bureau grew by 1.6 percent in 2017 alone. Weatherford, (population 11,832) is located in western Oklahoma’s Custer County, fifty miles from Oklahoma City on Interstate 40, with the famed Route 66 passing right through it. This is a safe community that offers small-town friendliness along with a pro-business attitude.
Economic Development Officer Yolanda Creswell, who has held the position since June 1 of this year, moved to Weatherford two years ago, having lived in western Oklahoma for fifteen years.
“The main reason I moved here was because of the excellent schools, because I have a son,” she says. “So that and the small-town atmosphere and the location close to Oklahoma City. The community is welcoming, and there are many activities you can be involved in as a family, and it’s safe. People here are open to newcomers, and sometimes that attitude is hard to find, so I just feel blessed that I live here.”
“People like it here,” agrees Mike Brown, who has served Weatherford as mayor for the past sixteen years and raised his family here. “It’s home for me, and it’s a great place to work, play, and raise a family. We have lots of activities; we have hiking trails, swimming pools, thirteen parks in total, a golf course, baseball and soccer, and we encourage a healthy lifestyle. But we’re also just an hour from a large urban area with an NBA team and a major airport, so we think this is a good place to be, and as Yolanda said, we’ve got a top-notch school district.”
There are also options for post-secondary education, either at the Western Technology Center or Southwestern Oklahoma State University. The university has been named by media company US News & World Report as offering one of the top bachelor’s degree programs in the country, with degrees offered in pharmacy, engineering, nursing, business, computer science, education, psychology, parks and recreation, and the arts.
What this means for business owners looking to locate here, is a well-educated workforce. Even though the unemployment rate in Weatherford is lower than the national average, employers can be assured that every year, come graduation time, there will be a new cohort of potential employees from which to draw.
Creswell says the economic development office has a good relationship with Oklahoma Works, which maintains a regional office in Weatherford and covers a radius of seventy miles, providing new businesses with access to a pool of potential employees they can interview and hire. In addition, Oklahoma Works can provide funding for their training.
“Plus,” she says, “we have the Weatherford Economic Foundation Group that meets monthly and is open to the public. We have senators coming to speak, and the executive director of the Department of Commerce has come, and so we keep communication lines open with all levels of government.”
“A lot of big businesses and manufacturers looking for a place to locate or relocate will call the Department of Commerce in Oklahoma City,” adds Brown, “and we’re told when they call there, they want to relocate to Weatherford.”
Ten years ago, Brown says citizens who believed wholeheartedly in their community, banded together to form the Yes Weatherford movement, “with seventy to eighty percent of them voting to put a one percent sales tax on themselves. The funds went to upgrade schools, infrastructure, wastewater treatment, and just generally improve the quality of life.”
Part of that funding has gone to reconfigure the exits on Interstate 40, with one phase completed and others on schedule. Another part of the revenue from the tax went into completing the SWOSU Pioneer Cellular Events Center which opened five years ago. This multi-purpose center, with a seating capacity of 3,500 in the main area and rooms for conferences, also hosts concerts and sporting events.
“We’ve just hosted a conference for first responders with three hundred attending,” says Creswell. “In October, the university has planned a two-day concert series, and in February, we’re hosting a conference with popular author Nicolas Sparks.” And that, she adds, is just a small sample of the kind of events that take place there.
The vibrant main street contains a three-mile section of Route 66, where tourists like to stop. There is also a Walmart Supercenter and a 160-acre industrial park, which Brown says has sold out. A further seventy acres is currently under development, “and we think that will sell out too,” he says.
Long-time tenants in the park include oil and gas companies. “Devon [Energy Corporation] has a pretty large field office with over one hundred employees, and Chesapeake Energy has close to one hundred,” says Brown. “We have B.O.P. Ram, an oil-field related company and we’ve got several ancillary businesses that are in that industry also,” he shares.
“But we’re open to a lot of things. We’d like to diversify,” Brown says. “It’s a business and technology park, so it’s a good opportunity for service companies from the oil field, but we would love to have manufacturing or technology or distribution. Any of those would be a great fit in the park.”
An outpatient mental health assessment and treatment clinic that will serve the region is under construction. “Mental health is a state-wide issue,” Creswell says, “but there were not a lot of services in the western part of the state. Weatherford was chosen because of its location close to the interstate and its proximity to Oklahoma City.” It is expected that approximately eighty professionals will be employed there, including psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, and social workers.
There are also plans for a $5 million expansion to the Stafford Air & Space Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, located on the Logan Road, just off Route 66. Named for Weatherford native, Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, the astronaut and flight pioneer who piloted Gemini VI and commanded Gemini IX, Apollo 10, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, it contains a number of space-related artifacts and is a significant tourist attraction.
Brown is hoping a readiness training center for National Guard reservists will be built soon on thirty acres that has been set aside for this purpose. “We are in line for this,” he says. “There are several others in the state, and we could be the center for the southwest, and when it happens, it will be a big deal for us.”
Creswell also told us about plans for wind energy, headed by a new wind farm company, Invenergy, which will sell its power to the Public Service Company of Oklahoma. Construction to install 350 wind turbines in surrounding Custer County will provide 250 jobs. “After that, we’ll be looking at thirty-four positions, everything from administration, engineering, and maintenance, all working out of the office in Weatherford.”
“It should help lower energy costs,” says Brown, “but the prominent thing is that landowners are able to lease their land to the wind farm company and will be paid out $2 million per year, so hopefully they turn around and spend that here. About ten years ago, we got ninety-eight turbines around Weatherford and had a lot of success with that, so we’ll certainly benefit from the extra 350 turbines,” he says.
“We like all kinds of businesses, and we welcome them all,” says Brown, “and we’re actually doing another community planning process like we did ten years ago. We had a meeting last month (July) and have one next month (September) to identify needs. We don’t offer a lot of incentives, but we rely on developers, entrepreneurs, and people who recognize this is a good place to live. We don’t go out and recruit, but we are open to welcoming any kind of business that wants to come in.”
“We recognize how important partnerships are and that we’re better working with others than trying to do it all by ourselves,” says Creswell. We have a great relationship with the public schools, with the university, with the hospital, the county, the state, and the Department of Commerce and try to get as much help from them as possible.”
Also partnering with the city is the Weatherford Industrial Trust. The non-profit organization offers opportunities for both established and start-up companies by providing shovel-ready sites at a fair price.
“If everyone is going in the same direction, we find we have better luck. Partnering with other people has been the key to our success,” concludes Brown.