Why is Cotulla Full of Empty Hotels?

Cotulla, Texas, is a small town deep in the oil fields of the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale.

It’s a town that bet big on the oil boom.

Five years ago the census put the population at less than 4,000 people. There were three or four motels then. Now in Cotulla there are around 25 motels, hotels and inns. It’s earned the town a nickname: “The ‘Hotel Capital of the Eagle Shale,’” says City Administrator Larry Dovalina.

He says for years Cotulla was like a lot of places in rural Texas: “Dying on the vine. Kind of forgotten.”

Listen to the radio feature here.

Then one day, Dovalina got a surprising proposal. A man approached him about building a $3 million Best Western Hotel in Cotulla.

“He said there’s a big oil boom coming. And I heard about it from a friend of mine, who was also an investor in his business. And from then on, it’s gone up every year,” says Dovalina.

The city laid down utilities and gave out permits for the Best Western and other new hotels. The buildings housed the thousands of men rushing in to work in the oil fields, and Cotulla reaped the benefits of the motel tax. To Dovalina, the whole thing looked like progress for the community.

“Many of its children who had left now enjoy very stable, very strong paying jobs,” he says. “Which they were never going to be able to enjoy in the community on the vine, dying, like it was before.”

That’s one version of the story of Cotulla, or almost any Texas boom town. It’s a version we heard more of before the price of oil plummeted last year.

Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms.Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Small town Cotulla depends on the oil industry to bring people to fill its many hotel rooms.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Just down the street from City Hall, a young guy working on his car, Jose Rodriguez, tells a different version.

“I’ve been here all my life,” he says. “[The] 2010 oil field boom hit here pretty good. Since then it’s been  booming in Cotulla, man. But just in the past couple of months, it went down, you know? Everybody got laid off. Everybody who’s anybody is laid off right now. I’m laid off, as a matter of fact.”

Rodriguez says he has a line on a new oil rig job, but if that didn’t pan out, he was going to leave. He says lot of the guys he knew already had — to Canada, or Alaska.

“I think by ten years from now, this town’s gonna be dried out. Every hole’s gonna be poked around here, and there’s only gonna be a handful of companies around here,” he says. “I don’t know, man. Cotulla don’t look too good right now.”

Wheaties works at a Cotulla auto parts store. He thinks the town's empty hotels will become 'pigeon houses.' Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Wheaties works at a Cotulla auto parts store. He is not optimistic the town’s empty hotel rooms will fill up anytime soon.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Cotulla’s about more than just oil and motels, of course.

There’s art. There’s local music — like El Gusano, a Cotulla-based band from the ‘70s. There’s loads of history: Before he was President, Lyndon Johnson taught grade school here. The place is overflowing with stories. But when you ask people about the future, you usually hear a version of the “boom town” story — or “ghost town.”

All you have to do is ask them about the hotels.

Ronaldo Osario, who goes by his nickname Wheaties — he says he got it because he was so good at basketball as a kid, his teammates said he should be on the Wheaties cereal box — works at the auto parts store where Rodriguez was shopping.

Wheaties was here for last oil boom in the ‘80s, and the bust. He says repo men would follow him on his paper route to locate their targets.

“We’ve been through this before. We know how it works,” he says.

He says that in ten years, the hotels are “gonna be pigeon houses.”

People in town remain optimistic, though, for the next energy boom to bring more workers to town.Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Some in town remain optimistic, though, for the next energy boom to bring in more workers.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

But, take that to the local chamber of commerce, and you get the sense that you’re stepping on some invisible battle lines.

“A lot of the people in this community did not want progress. But the progression came in just due to the fact that they couldn’t hold back the oil and gas boom,” says chamber president Brenda Talbert.

“I’m a positive person,” she says. “I’m not a negative person. I think this is a very positive thing.”

She says the price of oil will rebound. The U.S. will start exporting natural gas, maybe even crude oil. Soon the city will need more hotels.

She agrees that 25-plus hotels in a tiny town is slightly “nuts.”

“But when you look at the overall picture, and if you drive around, especially at night when these service people are coming in, most of those parking lots are full.”

but Later that night, most of those parking lots were still pretty empty.

That includes the lot at the Best Western — the place that was the first to go up with the oil boom.

Katie Groda works for a company that manages hotels. She actually spends her life on the road living in different hotels, and she’s spent a lot of time in Cotulla..

“As you can see there’s no business in here right now, and as I just came off the frontage road, I’m watching contractors building two-, three-story hotels!”

At the height of the oil boom, she says the place was booked two years out. Companies were paying for empty rooms to have them in case they needed them.

“You couldn’t find parking. The hotel was full, our housekeepers…everybody was just booming and going 24-7.”

Now, she says, it’s “extremely quiet.”

Since the oil companies started making layoffs and cutting spending, there have been rate wars between the hotels. And Groda doesn’t see how lot of the places will survive.

“What’s going to happen to the city of Cotulla? Are all those going to be dilapidated buildings in the next two, three, four years? Is that what the town’s going to be left with?”

Some in Cotulla believe the town is drying up. Will other small towns follow the same pattern?Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Without the oil jobs, no one seems certain about Cotulla’s future.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

There’s a train that passes through downtown Cotulla.

It carries goods made in Mexico to cities on this side of the border. One idea here is to capture that traffic by building big warehouses for the goods and filling the hotels with long-haul truckers. People also talk about repurposing the buildings — Cotulla needs permanent housing, so that could be an option.

But only one thing seems sure: Even if oil keeps going up, it’s not likely Texas will soon return to the heady days of a year or two ago. That means there are hundreds — maybe thousands — of other small towns like Cotulla, wondering what comes next.

This empty hotel's sign is rusted out, but it's still standing.Mose Buchele
People stopped flocking to this abandoned hotel long ago. These days, it attracts a different kind of guest.
Mose Buchele

In downtown Cotulla along Main Street, a rusted-out sign sits in front of a motor lodge that looks like it was abandoned long ago.

The windows are dingy. The paint’s chipping off.

There haven’t been any guests here for a long time. But — there are swallows. A lot of them. They’ve built their nests under the balcony.

Underneath the balcony, swallows are building their nests.Mose Buchele
Swallows nest under the abandoned hotel’s balcony.
Mose Buchele

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  1. My sincere condolences to Mose Buchele on his diagnosis of progeria.

    Much like my father, grandparents, and mother-in-law a sure sign of again is reading every sign you pass on the highway. As thrilling as this is to experience in person, it makes for even better radio.

    May God bless you, our sweet public radio angel. Be strong and let your spirit be young to counter the effects of this horrible disease.

  2. I’m 51 years old and I was born and raised here, Mr.Dovalina comes here from Laredo,tx to work because his town did not want him there anymore. So he has no idea of the pride we feel for our little town , all the motels going up around town are not a welcome site to all of us and the stories I’ve heard of local people being forced to move from their homes or not even having their own homes because of the outrageous rent prices , is sickening to me and makes me ashamed that some of our town folks have jumped onto the band wagon and can only rent to oilfield workers because the rent is so outrageous no normal local person can afford it . So what will happen to all those run down trailers and houses being rented out for $1000.00 + a month , sit empty or go back to being rented out to locals for the $300.00 a month rent like they were before . We need to be true to ourselves and treat our town folks with the love and respect they deserve not toss them out on the streets because they cannot afford your prices , I’d rather have a steady income for years to come then be wealthy for a couple of years and do ppl wrong , then be broke . Remember oil fielders come and go but home towners are here through thick and thin .

  3. I have lived here all my life! I have seen oil come and go. My concern is that all the money earned from these city and county governments have geared up for this, and when it leaves, who is going to pay for all these grants and such! It’s going to fall on people who live here! Instead of spending all the money that was taken in, there should have been an account for saving money! But who am I to tell officials things? Well I am a tax payer that will have to help bail the system out!

  4. I agree with Clayton,we were fine just the way we were, I disagree with Mr.Dovalina,Cotulla has never been forgotten, if you’re originally from Cotulla you always have a certain love and pride for our Town.To many people have come into town just to take advantage of it. Our city council should think of Cotulla’s best interest, we have to many projects started and not completed, our roads are a joke,yet we get more streets torn up when they can’t even finish one, but then again Mr.Dovalina isn’t here all week,

  5. It was nice to meet you mose!! Come visit us again at the bestwestern

  6. Wow… well said clayton! My late father worked on the rigs in the last oil boom. He returned home to make a decent living raising cattle and a day hunting operation once everything dried out. After high school I moved away and joined the military. With a blink of an eye, the ranch I grew up on is now a railroad depot, pipe yard, and who knows what else… These people waived their money around and my mom said sure! Unfortunately, my children will never have the experiences that I had in that small town. We (my husband and I) are starting over far away from the oil… got a few acres and hopefully I can still teach my kids a thing or two about living in the country.

  7. I have lived in cotulla all my life. It changed drasticly because of the boom. My father owns an oilfield welding service here and has for many years. We are slow now but still steadyily working. We have set around watching these hotels rising up and thought the same thing, why not permanent houseing? You want to know what cotulla will look like in a few years just look at freer texas. Abandonded, delapedating buildings everywhere. Yes there are still a few management deer hunting businesses around but not near as many as there was. Honestly my outlook on the boom is that our little town was just fine the way it was before all of the hustle and bustle of traffic, people, and hotels. It was quiet and yes our roads were not the greatest but they were way better than they are now. Everyone has their own outlook on it but hey who am i to say our city councel should have used a little more forethought and still should on some of their more recent decisions. To some it was great while it lasted, probably wishing they had saved more while it was here because it will not come back to being as busy as it was. It may pick up some but not like it was at the heigth of the whole feasco. To others like myself, we wish it had stayed just the way it was, where you could drive around town and know everyone you passed or met in the store, not stand in line at the grocery store for hours, or the gas station, the prices of everything was way cheaper especially land, and you could sit out at night gazing at the stars peacfully, for the exception of a passing train. The old cotulla is but a memory now and after this is all over for the original residence of cotulla including myself we will be left to pick up the pieces and watch the many hotels slowly die and weather away

  8. Thanks for listening Lilly! Hunting and ranching did seem to be the only game in town before the boom. There still seems to be a lot of hunting in Cotulla.

  9. My daddy was born, raised and buried in Cotulla. He returned there after retirement and helped the hunting guides there. Corporate deer hunts for trophy bucks (white tail deer) were big money then. I wonder if that livelihood remains or did the oil boom push that business and way of life out?

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