The town went on the auction block at 10:36 a.m., and less than an hour later Pat Patterson snared a fantastic bargain.
Patterson, a soft-spoken, white-haired heavy-equipment dealer from El Monte, Calif., had traveled to this remote mountain town searching for a bargain at one of the largest white elephant sales ever: the liquidation of the Colony Oil Shale Project, the huge synfuels operation that Exxon Corp. gave up on five months ago.
Exxon had swept into this mostly barren part of the world with the kind of extravagance that only big governments and big oil companies can muster.
Exxon essentially built a small town complete with houses and offices, a fleet of buses (and a complete garage to repair them), scores of trucks, tractors, snowmobiles, and other vehicles (and a complete auto parts store to supply them), miles of pipe, and warehouses full of office equipment, from desks and digital computers to coat racks, coffee urns and water coolers.
But as development costs rose and oil prices fell, Exxon had second thoughts. On May 2, it decided to mothball its operation here.
Since then, the company has been trying to cut its losses. Today was the first day of a three-day auction in which Exxon is selling most of its synfuels town.
There was only one item in the town that interested E.G. (Pat) Patterson, the California equipment dealer: lot 63, a G1000 seven-speed hydraulic Gradall with power steering and air brakes.
Patterson knew that the Gradall, a high-tech steam shovel, had cost Exxon $261,476.65 less than a year ago. It had been driven by experienced operators a total of 254 hours, the heavy-equipment equivalent of the little old lady who drives only on Sunday.
The Gradall was in such good shape that Patterson feared bidding would be tough. But when the auctioneer called Lot 63, not a single voice was heard. After a long silence, Patterson discreetly raised a finger and took home the Gradall for the minimum bid of $100,000.
And so it went today for Exxon, which seemed to be getting between 30 and 60 cents on the dollar for items large and small. The auctioneers today raced through about 800 of the 2,000 lots of equipment up for sale.
The auction was spread over a dusty 100-acre site at the foot of the mountain where Exxon had planned to mine shale. At first glance, the huge expanse of equipment made the place look as if a tornado had swept away the world's biggest hardware store, leaving all the stock sprawled out behind.
In fact, though, things were not so haphazard. The auction site had been carefully arranged (it took two months just to tag all the items and put them in place) by PD Auctioneers of Dallas.
The auctioneer sat on a makeshift platform in the back of a white pickup truck, which drove through the site from lot to lot as the auction progressed. Some of the 1,000 registered buyers on hand trekked along behind the truck. But most hunkered down by the equipment they wanted to buy and waited for the truck to reach them.
It was 10:36 on a clear, crisp fall morning when chief auctioneer Jim Parks started the bidding on lot 1 -- a hi-lift deluxe bumper jack, model HL-485, which sold for $30. For hours thereafter, Parks kept up sing-song patter as he moved from item to item.
"Tell me about it now, tell me about it now, tell me now, what are you gonna bid?" he would begin. "Who'll give 100 dollah, 100 dollah, 100 OKAY, I got 100 dollah bid.
"And let me hear 200 dollah, there's 200 dollah, 200, 300, 400, 5. Okay, I got 500 dollah, let's hear 550, now 550, 550, who's gonna bid? All right, there's 5 and a quarter, 5 and a quarter. I got 525, 525, are you done now? I got, I got . . . I SOLD IT for 525."
"There's a psychology to the thing," the 58-year-old Parks said later. "You want to keep the sound going, keep the rhythm going. So that you never give the impression that your sale is over."
Parks predicted that the Exxon sale would bring in something more than $5 million, making it a large liquidation, but far from the largest ever. J.C. Weisinger, who ran the sale for Exxon, said there were several auctions larger than this one after the completion of the Alyeska oil pipeline across Alaska.
A mile south of the auction site business seemed equally brisk on the main street of Parachute, the one-stoplight town that seemed headed for great things when Exxon initially announced plans for its multibillion-dollar synfuels plant here.
Exxon terminated 2,100 jobs when it shut down here. But much of the economic slack has been taken up by workers at the nation's only other commercial shale oil facility, being operated near here by Union Oil Co. The real estate market is close to dead, local people say, but otherwise businesses are surviving.
It's an ill economic wind, however, that blows no good, and Exxon's decision to sell off its town here seems to be a boon to buyers at the auction.
"I never thought it would go that cheap," said Patterson, who bought the $100,000 Gradall. "It's not even bumped up. No one would sell for that price except in distress conditions."
Patterson, who leases equipment to construction firms in still-prosperous southern California, said the country's current economic difficulties provided lots of distress sales. "There're scads of them this year," he said. "But even so, it's not every day you see one this big."