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The face of an Oklahoma town changes

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
October 2, 2012
 

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The following was written by Oklahoma Watch’s Graham Lee Brewer

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Millions across the nation are still having trouble finding work. But the growing town of Guymon, OK is different. There are more jobs than people to fill them. The burgeoning Hispanic population is responsible for not only the upturn, but the changing face of the agricultural town.

Driving in her car along downtown, Director of Main Street Guymon Melyn Johnson says Main St. is busy, and many of the businesses are Hispanic owned and operated. She repeats the opinion of many in town, that the influx of Hispanic immigrants over the last two decades has created an economic boom.

“If the building owners want to rent them, they’re full. I’m going to guess that half of those businesses are Hispanic. It’s pretty representative of our population.”

Recent prosperity in the panhandle’s largest town doesn’t stop at Main Street. A new fire station and animal shelter are currently under construction, and ground just broke for a the new library. The motels are full, and available houses are bought up quickly.

Ask just about anyone in town, and they’ll tell you life didn’t always move so fast. In fact, just twenty years ago Guymon was shrinking. Ask those same people what was the game changer and they’ll tell you, “Seaboard. I probably wouldn’t have a job if Seaboard hadn’t come in.” said Vicki Ayres-McCunne, Community and Economic Developer for the City of Guymon. She says that before Seaboard Foods decided to build a large pork processing plant in town in 1994, there wasn’t much of Guymon left.

“The population was around 6,000 and dwindling,” McCunne said. “Main Street was nearly dried up. People just don’t understand how bad things were prior to Seaboard coming in.”

According to the 2010 Census, Guymon’s population is just above 11,000, 52 percent of which are of Hispanic origin. While McCunne and her colleagues agree Hispanics are now the majority, they’ve challenged the overall population numbers.

“We knew in our hearts and our guts that was wrong. We believe based on our residential meters, not including apartments, we’re closer to the 14,000 range.”

There are also migrant and undocumented workers to take into account. It’s unlikely that either group was well represented in the population estimates. After several weeks of correspondence, Seaboard Foods declined to answer any questions about the demographics of their workers or the rates they are paid. Requests for a tour were also declined. Last week Seaboard Foods publicly acknowledged that Immigration and Custom Enforcement seized documents from their Guymon plant as part of an ongoing investigation. Neither Seaboard or ICE is commenting any further.

Despite the scrutiny Guymon plugs along, creating jobs and expanding. Vicki Ayres-McCunne sees the trend continuing. She says, despite the sluggish economy, over a dozen other companies are currently looking into expanding there.

“Those companies are looking at bringing 300 to 500 jobs within the next year. Just about every business in Guymon could use 3 to 4 employees. I’m just so blessed and thankful that I’m living in Guymon Oklahoma.”

But, even with Guymon’s success, for many in town the transition from an overwhelmingly white population to majority Hispanic hasn’t been an easy one. Melyn Johnson recognized those tensions then and now.

“There’s a bunch of people that are stuck in the mud. They don’t like what’s being done at the school, they don’t like what’s being done anywhere, and that’s their business,” Johnson said. “But, most people have come to realize where other towns are dying, we’re alive and well.”

We’ll take a look at the tensions that surfaced, as well as those that continue to linger, in part two of our look at Guymon, OK. That’s tomorrow hear at KOSU, online and on air, at 6:35 and 8:35 AM.

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