SOUTH HEART — Life is settling back into a familiar and welcome post-oil boom way of life for many in this small Stark County community.
Affectionately and sometimes jokingly referred to as a “suburb” of Dickinson, the farming and ranching community of South Heart has about 350 people, and has seen many more than that come and go in recent years with the oil industry.
And while the Bakken boom has gone bust — at least for the most part — South Heart keeps chugging along. It has a water project nearing completion and an $11 million bond referendum for the renovation of its school scheduled to be voted on in March.
Regular way of life
To many, South Heart is back to hanging its hat on the surrounding agricultural economy that has long been its economic driver, and at least one longtime area farmer said he sees nothing wrong with how the town is handling the post oil-boom world.
“I don’t think they overdeveloped like some towns did, where they’re going to have an extreme debt on their hands they won’t be able to handle,” said Bob Kuylen, a farmer who has lived just outside of South Heart for much of his life and is very involved in the community. “It seems like all the apartments and everything are full around here. Houses are full. There are hardly any for-sale signs on houses here. We’ve got an awesome school and a golf course, and it’s a great town to live in without the big-town feel.”
While taking a few minutes to stop at the Creative Energy gas station and convenience store on a busy weekday afternoon, Kuylen said the oil industry’s slowdown has helped alleviate traffi c through and around South Heart, particularly along Highway 10 just north of town.
“It was just too crazy,” Kuylen said. “Our infrastructure couldn’t handle what was going on here.”
Life in general is back to a slower normal in the community, said bar owner Mike Sticka.
His I Don’t Know Bar bore the brunt of the city’s oilfi eld worker infl ux, along with Pheasant Country Golf Course. The bar, as one would expect, became a meeting and gathering place for many newcomers.
“There were times I’d walk in on a Saturday night and not know a soul,” Sticka said. “Nobody but my bartender.”
Those days are in the past, he said. Local patrons are now coming back to have a beer and shoot the bull.
“It’s slow right now, don’t get me wrong,” Sticka said, “but it’s slowly getting better because of the locals.”
Lori Green, Creative Energy’s manager who moved to South Heart from Oregon during the oil rush, said she and her sister Alice Hyke, who also works there, can no longer rely on the constant infl ux of oilfi eld-related business but are thankful for their local customers who keep coming back.
“I don’t even know what normal is,” Green said with a laugh. “I moved out here in the boom. I’ve been here four years. To me, this is not normal.”
Hyke said Creative Energy is constantly pushing products that customers ask for in an effort to keep them coming back. In the winter months, Creative Energy and the I Don’t Know Bar are the only places in town that serve food.
“We do have a lot of our locals and everything,” she said. “It’s just people who moved here and now they’re gone.”
Western Stark County was one of the fastest-developing areas of the Bakken when oil prices crashed in late 2014. Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfi eld service company, was in the process of building a large facility on a hill just northwest of the city when prices collapsed.
Now, the fenced-in facility sits silent.
“We were hoping Schlumberger would get up and running, but they’re at a wait and see,” South Heart Mayor Floyd Hurt said.
School outlook positive
Though the energy industry’s slowdown has made an impact on its business community, South Heart could begin an $11 million school overhaul as early as this summer.
Calvin Dean, superintendent of the South Heart School District, said a bond referendum open to all district residents of voting age is set for March 22 and will be held at the school from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day. If the referendum is approved, construction could start shortly after the end of the school year.
Dean said the district held a meeting on Jan. 20 to present all relevant project information to the public and received “really positive feedback.”
The meeting concluded with the issuing of three questions to the attendants intended to probe their support for the project as a whole.
“The first question was, ‘Do you agree that the South Heart School District should pursue a project?’” Dean said. “We had 88 out of 88 surveyed say, ‘Yes,’ which is fantastic.”
The second and third questions asked whether respondents believed the timing of the project was right, given the oil production slowdown, and if they would vote in favor of an $11 million bond referendum if given the chance.
Dean said 86 and 83 of the 88 total respondents answered favorably to those questions, respectively, and some of those that voted “No” to the third question said they’d vote in favor of some amount, just not the total $11 million.
“In terms of surveys, I don’t think you could ask for anything more favorable than that,” Dean said of the results. “So we feel pretty good, but until it’s actually done, you never know for sure. So it’s really important that people who are eligible to vote — they get and out and vote.”
The fi rst phase of the project would include an addition to the elementary school wing of the facility’s north side while expanding the south end to create space for the school’s vocational and agriculture department. It would also add high school classrooms to the building.
If the referendum is approved, Dean said construction would start this summer and be completed and ready for school by the 2017 fall semester. Phase two would include the demolition and replacement of the school’s oldest building, which was originally constructed in 1916, and would begin at the end of the next school year with a 2018 completion date.