WATONGA — The absence — not the presence — of about 2,000 prisoners at Diamondback Correctional Facility frightens business owner Carla Lassiter.
The 1969 graduate of Watonga High School has been the owner and operator of the Hi-De-Ho Cafe for 20 years. She arrives at 4 a.m. each day so she can have biscuits and gravy ready by 5 a.m., when the bells jingling against the glass door signal the arrival of the first customer. Those bells aren't ringing quite as much since Diamondback closed in late May.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said the private prison's owner, Corrections Corp. of America, is trying to market the space to other customers.
That couldn't come soon enough for this community of 3,500 people, 80 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Diamondback had about 300 corrections workers, making it the city's largest employer.
recently spoke with some residents and business owners. Each expressed hope the prison would reopen.
"We're devastated that it shut down,” Lassiter says. "We know this happens, but it's not supposed to happen to us.”
Lassiter takes a menu and pushes it my way, pointing to an item they've offered for the last 11 years, the "Diamond Back Special: 2 eggs, 2 pancakes, bacon or sausage, $5.99.” Because the Hi-De-Ho Cafe is open 17 hours a day, she says, a lot of Diamondback workers would come in before or after a shift and take a seat among the 16 booths and tables.
"We sold a lot of hamburgers at 5 a.m. and served a lot of breakfasts at about 10 p.m.,” she says, chuckling.
Diamondback employees were always polite and ate well, she says.
"We have one guy who transferred to another town who still comes back to Watonga on weekends to play golf,” she says. "He comes in and it's like, 'I'm home.' We fix him about eight eggs.
"People did not realize how much they spent in this town.”
Not the first challenge
The Watonga Cheese Factory became a casualty of Tropical Storm Erin in August 2007, with strong winds and pelting rain damaging it beyond repair and ruining nearly 7,000 pounds of cheese. The cheese factory, which opened in Watonga in 1940, moved after that. However, the Watonga Cheese Festival continues; it's scheduled for Oct. 8-9.
A year ago, this agricultural community took another jab as Oklahoma suffered its worst wheat harvest since 1971.
Earlier this year, the United States Gypsum plant at nearby Southard laid off about 60 employees, said Mary Larson, the Watonga Chamber of Commerce administrative director. This spring, Watonga Public Schools cut some teaching positions.
Roman Nose State Lodge, just north of Watonga, had some layoffs due to a temporary closure for renovations, Larson said. The park has remained open, and the lodge is to reopen this fall.
Add on the loss of Diamondback.
Not just numbers
"We've heard there's the potential for three wind farms,” says Wheeler Brothers Grain Co. President Mike Mahoney, 60. "There's also some talk that a new truck stop may be coming to town. And hopefully the prison will come back and the economy will get better so the schools can hire teachers. There are positives. The people of Watonga are hardworking and live within their means. They will make adjustments and move on.”
Craig Cummins, 54, superintendent of Watonga Schools, says this spring was the toughest of his 31 years in education.
He has led the district for eight years. Through the first seven, the district cut 12 teaching positions. In the spring, 10 teaching positions were cut for next school year.
Cummins says the cuts were due to reduced funding for the district of 872 students and the possible loss of as many as 40 students because the prison closed. Those aren't just numbers.
"They were hometown people,” he says. "So many of our teachers grew up in Watonga. People are real attached to each other. You get the question, 'Why did you RIF this position and not this one?' You're doing the best you can with the hand you're dealt.”
Following her eighth-grade graduation in May, Summer Brady ran up to Cummins and his wife, Karen, who is an eighth-grade English teacher.
"Summer had big tears in her eyes and told us she was moving,” Craig Cummins says. "Her dad worked at Diamondback. She's been with these kids since she was in kindergarten, and she really wanted to move to high school with her class next fall. They go to church together, have birthday parties, play on summer baseball and softball teams together. What do you say?”
Aaron Clewell, who was last year's school board president, is a third-generation owner of Clewell's Family Hardware.
"When we reduce the number of teachers, we're basically saying we need people to leave town,” Clewell says.