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Rockdale: The Tiny Texas Town That's Turning To Bitmining

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The now-shuttered Alcoa power plant sits in front of the smelter Bitmain announced it would move into.

Rockdale, Texas, was chosen as the site for what some describe as the biggest bitcoin mine in the country. A Chinese company plans on bringing 400 jobs, while investing $500 million in the mine, which is where rows of computer processors solve complex computations and are awarded digital currency. This comes after a series of booms and busts for this town of 5,600 people.

Last year, the power plant that had been limping along closed. Between the smelter and the plant 1,700 jobs were gone. The largest employers in Milam County were now closed, and it lost 30 percent of its tax revenue.

“It made a hit on Rockdale. It hit us hard,” Charles Miles said. “You lose people. You lose income. You lose tax base. You lose a lot.”

Miles owns Miles Styles in downtown Rockdale, a barbershop surrounded by more than a few empty storefronts displaying “for rent” sign — something Miles says has only happened since Alcoa left.

“That’s just in the past couple years since Alcoa shut down,” Miles said. “You got the guys working out there at the plant and their wives were working in these shops, owning their own little businesses.”

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Charles Miles cuts Anthony Cortez' hair.

Miles, 38,  has lived here all his life, except for when he went away for college. He’s on the school board for the district his six children attend. He’s quick to point out that the Rockdale Tigers won the state high school championship for their football division last year.

And that wasn’t the only good news for the town. In fact, Miles said the area might be turning a corner.

“They say that history repeats itself,” he said, referring to an August announcement that a Chinese-owned cryptocurrency company called Bitmain was moving into part of the old Alcoa smelter.

It couldn’t come quick enough for Vincent Sorrells, who looks on as Miles cuts a man’s hair. He was a crane operator at Alcoa before they got rid of his job. He moved to Alcoa’s Port Lavaca location before being laid off there. He went back to school to become a barber, but that isn’t working out how he thought.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Vincent Sorrells

“There’s (sic) no businesses around here. It still ain't picked up enough for me. Bitcoin coming here just may bring people,” he said. “I can’t pay the bills on one cut a day.”

Despite the hopes and optimism of what Bitmain could provide, Sorrells — like many here — don’t know what the company does.

“No, sir, I don’t. People come in and ask and I had to look it up online and I couldn’t tell you,” he said.

Bitmain is a massive player in bitmining and one report said it had 85 percent of the market for the hardware that makes it possible.

“Conceptually, it is very similar to a data center,” said Jeffrey Stearns, executive vice president for Bitmain.

While others at the company describe the Rockdale facility as “the largest bit mine in the country” with 300,000 servers, Stearns said Bitmain hasn’t decided how the location will be used completely. The company also does work in artificial intelligence and other applications of Blockchain, the technology that makes bitmining possible.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Jeffrey Stearns said the company is dedicated to hiring locally, and they have started working with local employment officials like the Texas Workforce Commission, where this photo is taken.

But whatever they end up building, the one thing they do know is it will need energy — and lots of it.

“Energy availability is one of the primary considerations and also the cost associated with that energy,” Stearns said.

And Stearns added the company is confident it can get that cheap electricity in Rockdale.

Towns across the country have clashed with bitmining operations over driving up energy prices. Some towns have gone as far as banning the practice.

Bitcoin has seen wide swings in valuation the past few years. Last December, the digital currency was worth more than $19,000 now it is a little more than $6,300.

Rockdale City Manager Chris Whittaker said it isn’t clear what impact the operation will have on energy prices. He is focused on the positives of the deal — like Bitmain committing to hiring locally as much as it can.

“‘It’s huge; it’s a morale thing; it’s a job thing. … Now we’re getting an industry that’s state of the art,” he said.

MORE | In 1952, the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about Rockdale called “The Town Where It Rains Money”

Whittaker became city manager four years ago, the midway point between the closings of Alcoa closing and Luminant, the company it sold the power plant to. Since then, the city has launched programs to revitalize its downtown, including addressing its sewers, sidewalks and streets.

“It’s been a pretty roller coaster experience,” he said.

Rockdale Independent School District spent $5 million on renovations to its football stadium. Whittaker sometimes gives the staff the day off for away games because football is one of the biggest things the town has since Alcoa left.

“Now, it’s Bitmain.” he said.

While it's not make or break for Rockdale — said Whittaker, who points to rising property values — it will go a long way towards changing their trajectory.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Chris Whittaker

“We only brag about our athletics,” said Chris Miles, who works two barber chairs over from his brother Charles Miles at Miles Styles. “This is a good place to pick up a football player from. But we want to brag about more than that.”

For the man in Chris’ chair, Edward May, it’s now about the company fulfilling the hopes of the town.

“Can they actually do it? Because it’s been said before and things go up in flames and don’t last long,” May said. “It’s about, can they prove themselves when they do come?”

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org