Back in 2011, Kelly Powell saw natural gas workers flocking weekly—by the hundreds—to her native Washington County, Pa. A mile beneath the roads they were driving on, a geological turn of fate was stirring an economic boom in Appalachia, with old businesses hiring and new businesses cropping up to accommodate a fast-growing population. She knew there had to be a way for her to get in on this 21st century Appalachian gold rush. She just had to figure out how.
At the time, there was no obvious solution. She was working as a medical social worker at the nearby Jefferson Regional Medical Center. That she had no direct connection to the natural gas industry didn't help, either.
But after researching how other local entrepreneurs were finding new ways to prosper from the energy boom—through, say, contracting work with energy companies, launching food trucks to serve the gas fields, renting their lots to natural gas workers looking for a place to camp their RVs—Powell eventually came up with an idea.
“There’s mainly men who work on the pipeline,” she thought. “What is it that they just won’t do or hate to do? They hate to do laundry.” And so sparked the idea behind Dirty Girl Laundry, Powell’s laundry pickup and delivery business that spans Western Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia, catering to natural gas workers.
Powell, then in her mid-40s, figured that if she were going to start her own venture, it was now or never. She didn’t want to turn 50 sitting at her 9-to-5 desk job, filled with regret as she watched braver neighbors capitalize on the boom. In the form of natural gas, opportunity had arrived to revitalize her hometown and she wasn’t going to let it leave her behind.
Since that life-changing decision three years ago, Powell, now 47, has seen Dirty Girl Laundry grow from a side-project to a fully-fledged business—and she's not the only one who's found success. Since the natural gas industry first arrived in 2004, the median household income in Washington County has grown more than 46 percent, to $55,124 in 2013. Businesses throughout the Appalachian region have prospered by welcoming the influx of natural gas workers arriving from Oklahoma, Texas and other Southern states to drill for gas and build pipelines.
Meanwhile, all of that growth has made the region a more attractive destination for newcomers looking to plant their roots. After watching the population decline for 17 of the 25 years before 2004—the year the natural gas industry arrived—Washington County has grown for nine out of the last 10, as people return to communities that thinned out in the '80s. Neighborhoods are lined with new restaurants, hotels and shopping centers. In Washington County, where unemployment rates came in below the national average throughout the recession, it seems as though every business, new and old, has a “Now Hiring” sign in its window.
“I’ve seen businesses that were already here—they’ve grown. Restaurants, grocery stores, auto-body shops. I can't think of a business that hasn't grown here,” Powell said over lunch at TGI Fridays, a hotspot for natural gas workers that she frequents to scout for potential customers.
A Story of Prosperity
After launching in late 2011, Dirty Girl Laundry has thrived. As she had hoped, the business's name got people talking, and—after clarifying that her company was for laundry services only—Powell lured five customers within her first week. By mid-2012, she was doing well enough to quit her job at the hospital.
Since then, she’s seen her company add a part-time employee, upgrade its delivery vehicle from a sedan to a larger SUV, and sign its first corporate contract to launder the uniforms of a full crew of natural gas workers. And to preserve the flame-retardancy of the uniforms, which keeps workers safe on the gas fields, Powell has developed a custom line of cleaning products.
Powell’s exclusive line of detergents, softeners, laundry soap and air fresheners earned her a partnership with a local retailer that will begin selling the products this winter. Meanwhile, she’s also been in talks with a local hotel that is interested in using her air-freshener spray to mask the unique aroma that clings to workers after a hard day’s work in the gas fields.
But behind her burgeoning laundry business and her cleaning products remains Powell’s empathetic sensibility as a social worker. She considers herself an ambassador for Washington County, ushering in the energy workers from across the country. “They’re on the road and they have no freaking clue how to do this stuff,” she said, “so their sister—which is me—comes in, and I do it.”
Powell helps them get acquainted with Western Pennsylvania by doing their laundry, but also by recommending local businesses, like barber shops and restaurants, on the Dirty Girl Laundry Facebook page. With the masses of out-of-towners bringing new energy to the local economy, Powell and other entrepreneurs like her have found the means to reinvent themselves with newfound success. And for Powell, helping the recently settled energy workers acclimate to their new home isn’t only good for business—it’s simply the decent thing to do, she said.
“Without them, all these businesses wouldn’t be making money.”