CARRIZO SPRINGS — In the year since the Eagle Ford Shale boom burst upon South Texas — bringing hordes of oil field workers, convoys of heavy equipment and a tidal wave of investment money — small town life has turned topsy-turvy.
Here and elsewhere, traffic has become unbearable, restaurants are impossibly crowded, grocery stores regularly run out of meat and beer, electrical brownouts come and go, and prices for everything have skyrocketed.
“The whole world is changing here. This little community was deader than hell, but now that we have all these people coming in, we’re changing, things are happening,” said Eloy Rodriguez, the Dimmit County code compliance officer.
A quiet community of 5,700 residents tucked away in the brush country about two hours southwest of San Antonio, Carrizo Springs was completely unprepared for the dramatic economic and social changes now buffeting it.
Much of it is welcome. But while the county tax base and sales tax revenue are both doubling, and there are oil field jobs aplenty, the flip side is seen in the $1,200 two-bedroom rental house that a year ago went for $250, causing some locals to be shoved out.
And, as everyone learned this summer, there can be an unsavory side to an oil boom.
Shock waves followed the news that out-of-town strip club operators wanted to bring their neon fleshpots to the county. Rumors followed that other forms of big city vice and wickedness already had arrived.
“The majority of citizens are offended and aghast that we now have to deal with this problem, when never before did we even consider it,” Pastor Pete Perez of the Grace of God Community Church said of the strip clubs.
Deborah Dobie, the superintendent of schools, agreed.
“I wish we had something besides a strip joint coming to town, like a YMCA or a movie theater. We need some entertainment for families,” she groaned.
And with a brand new club called “Barebacks,” operating down the road in Encinal — about 55 miles as the errant husband roams — what once seemed like an absurd impossibility suddenly was a real threat.
Much prayer, protest and angst followed the news. And when the Dimmit County commissioners met in June, almost 50 people came to voice their concerns and 400 signed a petition opposing the strip clubs.
But, as they quickly learned, it wasn’t just a matter of saying no thanks.
“We were shocked when we learned we couldn’t stop them from coming and opening up, it being a first amendment, free speech issue, and all,” Perez said. “You never really give this situation a thought until it’s in your face.”
In response, the county formed a committee, which included Perez, that quickly drafted a “sexually oriented business” ordinance that may be the strictest in the state.
Approved two weeks ago, it regulates everything from the number of security guards required on the premises to the kind of drinking containers allowed.
It prohibits smoking, gambling and garbage burning, and lays out in graphic detail what legally constitutes “specified sexual activities,” a section not recommended for the weak of heart or those unversed in human anatomy.
“Understanding that we could not exclude them, we tried to impose as many regulations as we could,” said Commissioner Mike Uriegas, who oversaw the committee.
And so far, no further inquiries have come from strip club operators. But as the members of the ordinance committee learned along the way, other threats to the morals and family values, they said, may already be lurking in Dimmit County.
“We have experienced prostitution already in town. There are vans that come in and pick up the guys. We see out-of-town people, girls who we know are not from here, and that’s what they are doing,” said Irma de Luna, a local schoolteacher.
Sheriff Joel Gonzalez confirmed that complaints about prostitution have been received from managers of motels and operators of some of the many RV parks that sprang up overnight around the county.
Last week, the local paper led with the story of a woman recently convicted.
“I’m pretty sure this is the first prostitution case ever made in Dimmit County,” said the sheriff, who made the arrest himself.
“It was out there near one of the many camps, close to Asherton. We had intelligence she was going door to door. I went out in my personal vehicle and she offered to do sexual favors for money,” he said.
And, he said, more cases may follow.
Rodriguez, the code enforcement officer, said women soliciting oil field workers have visited the trailer park he owns.
“It’s happening at all the RV parks but no one wants to talk about it. And the rumor is, it’s happening at every hotel in town,” he said.
An employee at one of the motels confirmed unwanted late-night visitations by women.
Carrizo Springs Mayor Ralph Salinas said the city soon may craft its own strip club regulations.
“Out in the country, I guess, you could have a private club, but in the city they should definitely be out. It’s the type of thing we don’t need,” he said.
To get an idea of what could happen, Dimmit County leaders need only look down U.S. 83 to Encinal, (pop. 600), long little more than a minor traffic stop on Interstate 35. But Encinal now is booming with activity and new development, and the city recently created its own police force to deal with the growing impact of the oil boom.
“We’ve got 500 mobile homes coming in, a four-story hotel and a motel and an IBC Bank,” Mayor Sylvano Sanchez said,, adding that beyond that, the Love’s truck stop is expanding and there are plans to build bio diesel plants.
The strip club “Barebacks,” which opened in January, hasn’t caused any problems and seems to be struggling for business, according to the mayor.
“Right now, they are converting their strip club to do catering for the oil boom. It’s still a club at night, but they cater during the day,” he said, adding that few people in town seem bothered by the club.
“It’s expensive just to go in there. There’s a $10 door charge and $5 for a beer. People from Encinal don’t want to pay that money. It would leave you broke. They’d rather drink at their house,” he said.
On a Thursday evening visit to “Barebacks,” a windowless metal building set between a truck stop and a prison just off I-35, about a dozen oil field workers quietly drank beer in the general company of six lightly clad young women.
The club is decorated in a hunting motif, with mounted deer heads, camouflage-print wall covering and a faux deer blind. While the women periodically danced on a small stage, several customers watched an “Animal Planet” show about giant snakes on the bar televisions.
“The only reason we opened this club is that it’s a man’s world down here, oil field workers and hunters, and there are no women,” said owner Beca Howard of Laredo, who scoffed at the notion that her club could bother anyone.
“Do you really think this looks like a hoo-rah? It’s a very decent mom-and-pop operation. The girls who work here are going to college,” she said, adding, “I’m not about to have a vulgar place. My mother would rise from the dead.”
She said that serving meals to oil field workers is keeping the place afloat, and early Thursday night, the club seemed tame and almost lifeless.
With its utility carpeting and plain, dark furniture, the place felt more like a rec center for adults than a simmering den of sin and iniquity, suggesting that a regional moral collapse may not be imminent.
One regular customer, Mark Vavrusa, 51, a pipeline surveyor from Michigan who expects to spend two years in South Texas, observed: “Last Saturday we were in here. Tons of gorgeous young women. No guys here. What is that?”
He added, “I’ve been to a lot of clubs. I’ve dated strippers and escorts. This is a great club but I don’t know why there aren’t more men. There are so many pipe-liners down here. I can’t believe this place is not full.”