Over A Barrel
Pamela Colloff books Midland as a, uh, tourist destination.
Shura Lindgren has a tough job. Her mission? To convince Texans that Midland—yes, sun-scorched, wind-scoured, godforsaken Midland—is worth the trip. Lindgren, the director of the city’s convention and visitors bureau, concedes that outsiders may have negative ideas about the Tall City, where tumbleweeds outnumber any discernible tourist attractions, but she remains relentlessly upbeat. “People think, ‘Oh, Midland’s out there in the middle of nowhere, there’s no water, and it’s dusty,'” she says. “But Midland has its own desert beauty, like Tucson.” She even sees the lack of rain, which renders most of Midland a dull brown, as an opportunity: “We can play golf three hundred sixty days a year!”Midland is, perhaps, the most unlikely of tourist destinations. Still, it has little choice but to re-imagine itself: Long gone are this former boomtown’s bragging rights for having the most millionaires per capita in America and its own Rolls-Royce dealership. Midland’s oil reserves are declining, and most of the big oil companies have already moved out. This March a study trumpeted as Midland’s “last wake-up call” painted a dire portrait of the city’s reliance on oil and urged city leaders to lure new businesses and visitors for a cash infusion. “Midland’s most distinctive symbol is its skyline,” says Dan Houston, an Austinite who headed up the study. “But that symbol is in danger if no one’s washing the windows.”
So Midland, rather than waiting on its pump jacks, will market itself more aggressively as the “Gateway to Big Bend” and play up its presidential connections. But while the city wants tourism to play a large role in its revitalization, how can it overcome its most obvious stumbling block? Midland just isn’t sexy. “Midland isn’t Aspen, but it has a lot to offer,” says Houston. This includes such draws as the Petroleum Museum, with larger-than-life drill bits; a 500,000-gallon wave pool at Hero’s Water World, smack-dab in the middle of the desert; and George W. Bush’s childhood home on Ohio Street, which is being restored with fifties period pieces. No wonder the city’s longtime slogan, “Midland: In the Middle of Somewhere,” suggests that elsewhere might be better.
Of course, Midland tourism would get a big boost if George W. Bush decided to locate his presidential library there. City leaders have already sent Bush a letter trying to woo him, citing the city’s “can-do spirit” and its “track record for doing things first-class.” So far, there has been no response. “He probably hasn’t gotten the rug down in his office yet, but we wanted him to know that we’d be thrilled if he chose Midland,” says Lindgren. And maybe she’s onto something. She has already changed the city’s motto to a popular Bushism: “Midland: Where the Sky’s the Limit.”