On the Ground in Northwest Colorado
Today we visited our 57th (Rio Blanco) and 58th (Moffatt) counties on the tour. The small towns of Meeker and Craig and nearby Rangely in northwestern Colorado offer their residents a good life – one in which they live by the idea of “growing their own.” Less than an hour apart, the three communities boast gorgeous landscapes and cater to the outdoor lifestyle, offering hiking and biking trails, snowmobiling and seasonal hunting and fishing.
Rural economies often rely on natural resources of some type or another – and must depend on a sometimes unstable market. In Meeker, 80 percent of the local tax revenue comes from energy. Agriculture is another economic driver.
Access issues of all types are clouding the beautiful terrain of this part of the state. Both Meeker and Rangely are home to new hospitals that are less than two years old and in Craig, tour attendees touted a health care network with a strong nursing program and a community health center. But all the communities struggle to retain health care providers. Providers aren’t putting down roots, making it tough for them to develop strong patient and provider relationships, which contributes to higher volume.
Geography and distance also drive access issues. In Craig, clients of the local visiting nurse are up to 130 miles apart. Meeker brings specialists into town regularly – an oncologist comes once a month and administers treatment at the local hospital, but there still isn’t a qualified provider in town to deliver babies. However, the counties are able to offer some transportation options for non-driving residents and the small towns are walkable. We took a wonderful walking tour through downtown Meeker, visiting the local museum and Meeker Drugs, a historic soda fountain and local pharmacy.
The three communities all share another barrier: access to child care. Many areas in this part of the state are considered “child care deserts,” with little if any access to certified providers. Another by-product of this problem is a population of residents seeking part-time work, which is both hard to come by and provides limited health coverage.
Other barriers noted in Meeker and Rangely include:
- Access to fresh, healthy produce in Rangely: even frozen veggies is difficult.
- Information access: Broadband is limited in Rangely, but fiber is on the way later this year. Nevertheless, the weekly newspaper, Facebook and the local post office are the primary information sources in Meeker.
- Behavioral health needs outstrip availability. Many community members of all ages are suffering from significant depression and substance abuse. Methamphetamines and heroin top the list of most prevalent drugs. There is a bright spot in the use of telemedicine for psychiatry and in treating addictions and there are some mental health services available in the schools.
- Laws have prohibited marijuana sales in Rio Blanco or Moffatt counties. Some view this as a missed economic opportunity.
In Craig, tour attendees emphasized the community’s readiness to acknowledge their health issues and a will to work together toward a common agenda. For example they provide diverse offerings for the approximately 2000 senior adults in the area, but sustainability is an ever-present challenge. Younger residents are also prioritized, with clear goals to boost the opportunities for those that live in Craig, particularly through education.
But, this small community has barriers similar to the neighboring towns: There are few licensed child care facilities and even fewer seats at the advocacy table, making opportunities to influence key policy decisions rare. The local workforce faces wage disparities and the mining and energy sectors require shift work, which can be tough on families.