A Panhandle Explosion: Influx of immigrants rekindling economic growth in Guymon, Oklahoma

Oklahoma

By Graham Lee Brewer
Oklahoma Watch

GUYMON, OK — It’s a weekday morning, and downtown Guymon is bustling. Guatemalans walk into a clothing store, passing a small group of Mexicans chatting on the sidewalk. Across the street, a man of Kenyan descent walks along the curb.

Above it all, the sound of Al Green’s silky smooth voice spills from outdoor speakers.

“Well, we’re mostly Mexican and white, so we ought to have black music,” explains Guymon Main Street Director Melyn Johnson. “You just have to have the diversity to make it better. A mutt is always stronger than a purebred.”

Across the Oklahoma landscape, an alarming number of communities are morphing into ghost towns. They are places where youngsters have fled to bigger cities, leaving farms and schools to consolidate and populations to shrink.

But not Guymon.

Taco Shop proprietor Jose Perez prepares a dish as Gaby Perez and Pati Ramos look on. (Photo by Shawn Yorks | Guymon Daily Herald)

Situated in the center of the Panhandle, Guymon is bursting with activity. Downtown buildings are full; motels are booked; construction is constant. In recent months, the town witnessed the opening of a new fire station and animal shelter and broke ground on a 19,000-square-foot library.

An Oklahoma Watch analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data helps explain why: Guymon is the only city in Oklahoma where Hispanics have become the majority, accounting for 52% of its 11,442 official residents in 2010. Some Guymon authorities insist the percentage is actually much higher because many recent immigrants were not included in the 2010 headcount.

That’s an impressive milestone in a state where Hispanics represent less than 1 percent of the national Hispanic population and just 9% of the total state population. But there are also migrant and undocumented workers to take into account, and it’s unlikely either group was well represented in the Census Bureau, estimates. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates Oklahoma had from 65,000 to 85,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010.

Guymon city officials unsuccessfully appealed the 2010 Census results, arguing their tally fell far short of the true number. They hired a third party to conduct a study, which estimated Guymon’s population between 17,000 and 18,000, with the Hispanic share hovering around 50 percent.

Lalo Rodriquez and his three brothers have operated Rodriquez Auto Service for nearly a decade. (Photo by Shawn Yorks | Guymon Daily Herald)

Earlier this year, some Americans were startled when the Census Bureau projected that whites will become a minority population nationwide by 2023. Former Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock says that historic shift is driven by two key demographics — both present in Guymon.

“One is an aging, literally off-the-end-of-the-life-chart set of non-Hispanic whites,” Murdock said. “Their fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years. The average non-Hispanic white woman is 40-41 years of age. That population is going to increasingly disappear from occupations as they age.

“The other population is young and primarily minority. The average Hispanic woman in the U.S. is 25. What happens with that group is important to understanding the future of the country.”

Johnson, the Main Street program director, summed up what appears to be the prevailing sentiment around this Panhandle community: Workers, no matter their nationality or legal status, are bringing not only money and growth to Guymon, but also new energy and life.

“We respect people who will work hard,” she said. “We respect that a lot more than if you’re third generation and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.”

Boomtown

Guymon’s vibrant and heavily occupied downtown stands in stark contrast to many small cities across the state. A zapatería stocked with stylish shoes, a shop that sells quinceañera dresses and a community theater are just some of the tenants that fill nearly every storefront.

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

The shortage of space is being felt heavily in the housing sector.

A customer checks out the clothing and accessories at Frida, a Hispanic-owned clothing store. (Photo by Shawn Yorks | Guymon Daily Herald)

“If you move here, you can’t get a place tomorrow,” said Ted Graham, Guymon’s city manager. “You may wait a couple months, maybe longer, just to rent.”

On any given night in Guymon, it can be difficult to find an empty motel room, as some workers get assistance from their employers to stay in motels for months on end. An estimated 600 workers commute from neighboring towns such as Optima and Hooker.

“We’ve seen some real changes here,” Graham said. “As the country went through its economic downturn, Guymon didn’t turn down as hard as everybody else.”

The future looks even brighter.

“I’m speaking with 13 developers that are looking at bringing another 300 to 500 jobs in the immediate year,” said Guymon Community and Economic Developer Vicki McCune.

With two wind farms currently under construction…

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