As I pulled up to the headquarters of Shallenberger Construction in Connellsville, Pa., a small town outside of Pittsburgh, I was greeted by a life-size statue of Atlas, the titan from Greek mythology who was forced by Zeus to carry the world on his back.
The bronze monument stands tall behind the entrance to the construction company, one of the many businesses in Western Pennsylvania to benefit from the natural gas boom of the last decade. I understood the statue as a metaphor for the hard work the company’s employees do, but when I asked Tuffy Shallenberger about it, the president and owner of the company laughed and told me, "I just liked it."
Shallenberger, 47, isn’t your classic embodiment of a savvy businessman. His attire is that of a construction worker: he wears worker boots, jeans, a sweater and a trucker hat. His office is decorated with small yellow models of bulldozers, excavators and other heavy duty vehicles, and at his desk sits a messy pile of papers and a large sign with curvy letters that reads “Tuffy,” a nickname for “Terrance,” which is much too proper for this blue-collar nook of Pennsylvania.
In its heyday during the early 1900s, Connellsville was a powerhouse for coal mining and production of coke, a coal-based fuel. Sometimes referred to as the “Coal and Coke Capital of the World,” it was once home to more millionaires per capita than any other place in the country. But over the course of the 20th century, the city regressed into a small town as new technologies made Connellsville’s method of coke production obsolete.
Now, as in other parts of Appalachian coal country, Connellsville is experiencing a resurgence as the energy industry moves back into the region to tap the vast supply of shale gas in the underground Marcellus formation. Both longstanding businesses like Shallenberger Construction and newer companies popping up in the region have capitalized on the new business and influx of thousands of gas field workers into the area. As a result, the median household income in Connellsville’s Fayette County has ballooned nearly 42 percent from $27,451 in 2000 to $38,903 last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The gas has been a game changer,” said Shallenberger, who estimates that 90 percent of his business comes from energy companies. “Without the gas right here right now, I don’t know what we would be doing. It’s that simple.” With the many natural gas projects, Shallenberger, who was raised in Connellsville, has built his family’s 43-year-old swimming pool company into a modest construction empire.
Shallenberger Construction does the developmental work necessary for energy companies to tap natural gas: preparing the land, paving roads, constructing pipelines, and building, as well as reclaiming, fresh water storage sites known as impoundments—fenced-in football field-size water storage areas that satisfy the water-intensive needs of the hydraulic fracturing process. They also reclaim these impoundments, a process that returns the land to a state resembling the landscape before they were installed.
Doug Brighton, a project manager for the company, took me on a tour of a few sites where the company was doing some of these reclamations. He drove me through the hilly landscape of Western Pennsylvania, which was beginning to usher in autumn with shades of yellow and red. The three impoundments we visited were located on the properties of farmers who’d sold access to Chevron, one of Shallenberger Construction’s key partners, to pump for natural gas on their land.
At one of the sites, the company was in the early stages of the reclamation process, pumping excess water out of a freshwater impoundment. The process had started a few days prior, but it would take about three weeks before all the water was emptied. At another site, the water had already been drained and it had been refilled with earth and soil. A construction crew was now working to make the land look as it had before it was turned into a natural gas drilling site. At a third location, Brighton pointed out a mundane hill and explained how it had previously been the site of a water impoundment before being refilled and then restored by Shallenberger Construction.
Shallenberger’s family has been building pools, albeit of a different kind, for nearly five decades. In 1971, his parents started Shallenberger Pools which has installed swimming pools on residential properties ever since. The Shallenbergers began dabbling with other kinds of construction during the 1980s, and in 1991, Shallenberger Construction was spun out with Tuffy as the boss. Although Shallenberger’s parents are getting ready to retire and shut down Shallenberger Pools later this year, Shallenberger Construction is still building toward its apex, busy with work for the natural gas industry and quickly expanding. Since 2004, the company has grown from 50 employees working out of a small trailer and 3,200 square-foot garage to about 300 operating out of Shallenberger Construction’s two-year-old, 30,000 square-foot facility, which sits atop a hill in Connellsville that overlooks the majestic forest of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands.
After driving past the Atlas statue, I parked my car outside the entrance of Shallenberger Construction and walked into the reception, which is part of a box-shaped two-story building with a tan brick facade that resembles a home you might find in any suburban American town. Inside are the company management's offices. For our interview, Tuffy took me to his meeting room before giving me a tour of the entire facility. Out back, the facility immediately morphs into a cavernous warehouse designed for storing the company’s fleet of more than 400 pieces of heavy duty equipment and 200 licensed vehicles.
But Shallenberger Construction’s headquarters are quickly becoming too small for this growing business. It’s building a second facility in St. Clairsville, Ohio, which is slated to open in 2015. That location will allow Shallenberger Construction to transplant equipment and employees to the neighboring state as energy companies begin tapping natural gas in those regions of the Marcellus. But even that facility may not be enough, Shallenberger said, and there are plans to expand its Connellsville headquarters.
"To be honest with you, we’re just about out of room again," Shallenberger says, laughing. "We’re crammed to the hill already."
Later, as I exited the building, I saw that the walls were adorned with photos of local youth and professional soccer teams Shallenberger Construction proudly sponsors. A rising sport in the new American boomtown, soccer has become unexpectedly emblematic of Shallenberger and the Appalachian region’s recent growth.
Beyond running the family construction business, Shallenberger is also now the majority owner of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a third-tier professional soccer team he acquired in 2013. His Riverhounds are fittingly affiliated with the Houston Dynamo, the Major League Soccer club based in the energy capital of the world. So as the Dynamo ship players to Appalachia to develop into future stars, energy companies likewise see the region as the future of its natural gas business, driving the migration of thousands of Texas-based energy workers to plant their roots in the region.
For Shallenberger, all this Texas talent is transforming the Connellsville where he grew up into the one where he’s raising his two soccer-playing sons. Where once there was only coal, now too flows natural gas. And while his kids would have once grown up dreaming of playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the success afforded by that natural gas—for Shallenberger Construction and the rest of the region—has them playing a different sport, inspired by different local stars, on a 100-acre soccer complex their father’s construction company built.