By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
At one time, the event now known as the Southwest Energy Institute was the biggest show in Liberal.
Three times a year, local hotels were reported to be filled to capacity, and restaurants saw lines out the door to the parking lot when the institute was in town.
This year’s institute was scheduled to take place next Wednesday and Thursday, but Seward County Community College Business and Industry Director Norma Jean Dodge said earlier this month, the SEI committee decided not to have this year’s event.
“The committee just decided last week with the way industry is and the pre-registration numbers, we were going to go ahead and not have it this year,” she said. “We had a good lineup of classes and speakers coming out as well as vendors, but we do need participants. The numbers were not as we were hoping, at least at pre-registration time. We do always have it open where they can register at the door, but we weren’t going to rely on that and have vendors and speakers in attendance with not that many participants.”
Dodge said along with a declining oil and gas industry in recent years, buyouts and layoffs have led to some industry workers doing several jobs within the company. This, she said, leaves little time for training.
Dodge said pre-registration for the SEI typically yields about 100 to 200 participants.
“The last couple of years has declined, but we’re usually at a good number to go in and say ‘Yes, this is going to be a pretty successful institute,’” she said. “We were nowhere close to that.”
This was supposed to be the institute’s 65th edition in Liberal, and Dodge said this is the first time in the history of the event it has been canceled. She did say, though, it is most likely the SEI will be back for next year.
“The way the committee left last Tuesday on April 7, the whole committee feels that this is of importance to continue to offer this type of training,” she said. “They’re going to meet again on May 23 and talk about what format that should be. Is it going to be as big as we’ve done it before, or is it going to be pretty comparable to what we do for the rectifier schools?”
Dodge said this may include changing the format of the institute.
“Do we look at certain types of training and then bring that here on campus, or do we keep it at the Events Center?” she said. “We don’t know yet. That’s something they’re going to talk about in May and see what is the best thing we can do right now with the way the industry is, but still continue that training piece.”
The SEI, Dodge said, falls under the umbrella of Petroleum Industry Education, which she said is a huge supporter of SCCC.
“We receive lots of funding through them for our energy programs, whether it’s equipment donations or just funding for scholarships or internships, matching grant funds,” she said. “They do see that as a huge partnership they don’t want to let go. That’s where the institute money would go into was to PIE to help fund energy programs. It didn’t have to specifically be Seward County Community College. We were just fortunate we’re the ones that are partnering with them to bring on the institute. We were able to see some of that money come back to us in those kind of forms.”
Dodge said she does not see the SEI as being something said goodbye to, but rather something to be re-evaluated to see how it can be offered in 2018.
Dodge said as the oil and gas industry goes, so goes the institute in recent years.
“The attendance has been going down, but that’s been going down as the oil and gas industry has been changing in this area,” she said.
While she is unsure about the recovery of the industry, Dodge said many in oil and gas have good feelings about the rebuilding of the industry.
“From what I hear from the group, because I’m not in the field, but from listening to the committee members, they’re very busy,” she said. “It’s picking up. With all the layoffs, they’re relying on a smaller crew to work with. They’re busy, so they can’t get away for the training. I think that’s what’s going on. Things have been picking up for them.”
Dodge said the recent recession in oil and gas spelled a loss of many companies in the area, and she was likewise unsure if the expected recovery would bring some of those companies back to Southwest Kansas.
“I have no clue, but just listening to them, I know business for them has picked up,” she said. “Whether or not those kind of companies will pick back up here, I’m really not sure how that’s going to work and what’s going to happen.”
Dodge said many members of the SEI committee lived through a similar oil and gas trend in the 1980s, and they have talked to her about how low levels were at that time.
“They weren’t sure if they were going to bounce back from it, and they did,” she said. “I don’t know. They seem optimistic in talking to them, so hopefully, that will be the case. I know that’s a huge source in this area that we rely on.”
With this year’s SEI to be a landmark anniversary, Dodge said the committee’s decision to cancel was extremely difficult. She did say, though, in its time in Liberal, the community has been very gracious to the institute.
“We have a wonderful partnership with the county, the city, tourism and the Chamber and all the people in the community that have been very supportive, the people that cater – Billy’s, High Plains Pizza,” she said. “We’re just grateful for everybody that’s helped us these last several years.”
Dodge emphasized the difficulty of the committee’s decision, saying the bulk of this month’s meeting was spent talking about it, particularly valuing people’s time and money spent coming to Liberal and not abusing both for them.
“It’s in the best interest to save people their money and their time to say ‘This is one of those years we’re going to have wait, re-evaluate and see what we can do for 2018,’” she said of the decision made by the committee.
Dodge said the work done by the SEI committee to put on the institute does not go unnoticed.
“The college appreciates all the stuff they do in order to make sure we’re providing students as well as industry people with the quality training they need to continue to work in the oil and gas industry,” she said.