Town of Midwest wants clinic, stores to thrive

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MIDWEST, Wyo. (AP) — At the Midwest Community Health Clinic, Mike Smith greets people by their first names.

He shares an office with an emergency crash cart and a set of standing medical lights. Poster-sized checks declaring donations from oil companies line the clinic's white halls; a basket of cookies on a centrally located card table never runs empty.

The whole place smells clean, sanitized, as any good medical facility should.

With no pharmacy, no grocery store and little else but open prairie for miles, Smith and his two-person staff have remedied runny noses and 2 a.m. pleas for Tylenol for rural residents across northern Natrona County since the clinic opened in 2006.

Smith launched the clinic that year in a single square office in Midwest's Town Hall, with little more than a computer desk and a salvaged exam table.

"Since then it's been one partnership after another after another," said Smith, the clinic's director. Today, clinicians offer vaccines, handle Worker's Compensation injuries and help monitor chronic ailments like diabetes.

The town of Midwest pays the clinic's light bill and buys the gritty coffee, Smith said, but can fund little else.

An old bus donated by the Central Wyoming Senior Citizens Center is the latest in Smith's less-than-typical brand of fundraising, which involves grants and in-kind donations from just about everywhere to meet the clinic's needs as they arise.

Smith has to jumpstart the rig to get it running, he said, but he recently drove the bus from Casper to its current home in a field behind the local fire hall with no major problems.

"She needs a little work," Smith said.

Soon, he hopes to use the bus to drive patients without transportation to and from appointments in Casper and check-ins at the local clinic. There's a need for public transportation in Midwest, Smith said; he knows people who aren't on blood thinners because they can't get themselves to Casper for a prescription or a refill.

All told, he thinks the bus renovations — new batteries, a new paint job and a new electrical system — plus its first year of operation will cost about $20,000.

They'd get her up and running in no time, Smith said, "if we could just find the funding."

A boom town past its prime?

It's easy to see why Midwest is sometimes an afterthought.

The average house is nearly a century old. Most differ only by degrees in their states of disrepair, with many a window boarded and mattress moldering on front porches. Overturned tricycles and rusty trucks dot lawns around town, along with some cars propped on cinder blocks. Underfoot, unregulated cow pad dies grow crusty on vacant lots and sidewalks.

With just 599 voters living in Midwest and neighboring Edgerton, it's no surprise the municipality rarely highlights Natrona County Commission agendas or county politicians' campaign trails.

But this little patch of windswept prairie generates more tax revenue than any municipality in Natrona County, thanks to the 20,000-acre oil field that sits in its backyard.

Anadarko Petroleum — the company currently running enhanced oil recovery at the Salt Creek Oil Field — is the single largest taxpayer in Natrona County by a long shot, according to records from the Natrona County Treasurer's Office. Anadarko's county tax bill last year reached nearly $26 million — $19 million of which will go to Natrona County schools and Casper College. Natrona County's second-largest taxpayer generates not even a quarter of that.

For playing host to such a taxpaying powerhouse, however, Midwest residents are concerned they see little in return.

The town owns land to build on and more trucks than can fit in the current fire house, Smith said, but the county has turned Midwest down for funds to put the town's plan for a new fire facility into action.

Company-owned until 1960 and unincorporated until 1978, Midwest is used to the booms and busts that come with being an oil town. The town's population peaked at about 15,000 in the early 1920s, and has since steadily declined to its current 404 residents.

Sandy Schutte, a Midwest resident since infancy, remembers the days when people came from all over to send their kids to Midwest for school.

Schutte, 71, curates the Salt Creek Museum, a cozy couple of rooms loaded with relics from the big boom days. Lynne Cheney, whose grandparents were born in Midwest, even has her fingerprints on the little museum's storied past; a hefty donation from the former vice president's wife helped print hundreds of old photos on acid-free paper and store them in protective binders.

Schutte left Midwest once, she said, "to see the world."

"The next time I leave I'll be ashes in the wind," she said, "because I'm not leaving again."

Other developments bring hope to the town. Last June, Midwest received a $670,000 Wyoming Business Council grant to design and construct an expansion to the town's Salt Creek Community Rec Center, according to Midwest Town Clerk Dolly Harrison.

"We don't have any place to just go," Harrison said. The new community center — which Harrison said is on track to be finished by the end of this year — would change that, hosting everything from weddings to funerals to birthday parties for Midwest residents.

Midwest Town Council member Everett DeWitt has lived and worked in Midwest since 1980.

Every morning when he feeds his cows, DeWitt greets a steady stream of headlights flowing into Midwest. And when he returns in the evening, he watches the trucks leave, seeing only their taillights disappearing over the ridge back to Casper.

DeWitt, a senior operator for Anadarko, said the town's population more than doubles during the day, due to the 600-some hands who commute to Midwest to work the adjacent Salt Creek Oil Field.

The workers come in droves every morning and night to buy coffee and gas from the Junction C-Store. The lunch rush at the Tumbleweed Cafe is unbelievable. But ultimately, these workers leave.

Mike Smith hopes the townspeople won't do the same.

"We have people in the community with some foresight," Smith said. "Folks who want to clean it up. Folks who understand the potential. Folks who understand that when the oil dries up, the town doesn't have to."

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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