CLIFTON – Imagine leaving home and traveling hundreds of miles to a new job, only to discover there is barely any place to stay.
The motels have “no vacancy” signs. Rental homes and apartments are taken. Even RV spaces are full.
That’s pretty much the story in eastern Arizona as thousands of miners and contractors migrate to join a copper boom that has transformed bucolic towns such as Clifton and Globe into industrial juggernauts teeming with heavy equipment.
One copper company, Phelps Dodge, has been forced to buy up hundreds of so-called Katrina trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house workers for its mines in Morenci and Safford.
New apartment complexes, RV parks and housing tracts are sprouting like weeds in two of the state’s least-populated counties, Greenlee and Graham.
Rents have soared, in some cases doubling. Old houses in Miami that were vacant for years are being refurbished for use as rentals. New homes are bought up before the footings have been dug.
For anyone who has driven through these once-sleepy towns, the change is glaring. And it can be explained in one word: money.
About four years ago, copper was marginally profitable at 70 cents per pound on the world market. Some Arizona mines closed. But this year, with burgeoning markets in China, India and elsewhere, copper prices skyrocketed to more than $3.65 per pound.
Old mines are opening and new ones are planned. As companies scramble for manpower, a housing crunch that began last year is verging on critical.
Nowhere is the lack of empty beds more glaring than in Clifton. Two years ago, the population was 2,495; the actual number today is unknown.
Randy Stewart, 52, a Phelps Dodge mechanic, said he lives with two other miners in a one-bedroom trailer at an RV park. “We put one guy in the kitchen on a cot, and I take the folding bed,” he added. “When I first got here, I found an apartment for $300 a month. I didn’t like it. Too small. I went back to recheck, and they had raised the price to $600.”
“It’s very difficult to find housing for anyone, even our own employees,” said Kay Gale, Greenlee County manager. “I have one (staffer) living in a camp trailer at a friend’s place. All the RV parks are full. We have seen a couple (of miners) . . . living in tents.”
Bill Tredway, who runs Clifton’s Rode Inn Motel, said all 33 rooms are booked weeks in advance. “Until the boom started,” Tredway said, “there were nights when my wife and I would go to bed and be the only ones here.”
Up the hill, Morenci is among the last company towns in the nation, wholly owned by Phelps Dodge, now part of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. That includes everything from the Morenci Motel to the 1,200 single-family homes rented to miners for $200 a month. Forty-seven houses are under construction, according to John Shock, the town’s housing/security boss. But it’s not enough.
So the company has transformed an unused Clifton park into a makeshift village of about 60 surplus FEMA trailers where employees can live for free. More trailers have been moved into nearly every vacant RV space from Clifton to York Valley to Safford.
Still not enough. So Phelps Dodge is planning to build a “man camp” in Morenci, where about 600 workers will live in dorms and eat in a cafeteria free of charge. Those miners will work seven-day schedules, with 12-hour shifts, taking every other week off to return to homes in metro areas.
Descending into Morenci, the largest open-pit copper mine in the Northern Hemisphere, Ken Vaughn of Phelps Dodge notes there were just 1,700 workers five years ago. Now, there are 3,000 and counting.
“We’re making copper as fast as we can,” Vaughn said. “Historically, this is a very strong and long-lasting cycle.”
The digging, smelting, leaching and hauling require drivers, mechanics, electricians, chemists, security guards, road crews and myriad contractors.
Builders knew a housing shortage was imminent because of the buzz over copper prices. “(But) nobody wanted to pull the trigger on development until they saw we were absolutely, positively going to build the mine,” said Kimball Hansen of Phelps Dodge. “They’re all kind of in a catch-up mode now.”
The company’s Morenci and Safford operations are part of a much larger picture, with mining companies also developing operations near Miami, Superior and Hayden.
The combined projects, requiring a workforce of more than 10,000, have tapped the labor pool in Greenlee, Graham, Gila and Pinal counties, and are luring a workforce from around the nation.