Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Give It Away

One approach to rural growth and development is to just not have any. Make it virtually impossible to build on rural land, discourage new development, fight to keep things the way they always have been, and the population of the county will decline and businesses and schools will close. That's what has happened in Whitman County.

Then there's this approach, as reported in the Kansas City Star:
Towns tout free land to lure new residents

Struggling rural areas get creative in order to grow and save their way of life.

“Imagine a 720 square mile county with buffalo, farm animals and wildlife scattered across picturesque hillsides.”

From a town east of there: “Stroll or bike around town and you can count on being greeted by friendly citizens on every street. … We offer a friendly, small town atmosphere and an excellent education for your children in a safe school system, with small classes …”

Oh, and did we mention the land is free? All you have to do is build a home and move there.

The idea isn’t new. Marquette, Kan., grabbed national headlines when it began offering free land about four years ago. But other towns are jumping in fast and furious.

From Chetopa in the southeast to Atwood in the far northwest and from Argonia near the Oklahoma line to Mankato close to the Nebraska border, towns have decided they need to be creative. And aggressive.

More than 20 Kansas communities — and Nebraska and North Dakota towns living similar stories of declining populations — offer the promise of free land. Another Kansas county, which doesn’t have land to give away, wants in on the growth so bad it’s offering grants of up to $10,000.

“We’re all struggling for the same thing — it’s people,” said Jeff Benbrook, city administrator of Peabody, Kan. “Give us more people and we can do some things. Without people, you don’t have the taxes. Without taxes, you don’t have the money.”

For some, this free land program has worked. Several Kansas towns tell success stories of new families, more kids in classrooms and, for the first time in years, a faith in the future.

Last year alone, KansasFreeLand.com tallied more than 2 million hits.

People from as far away as Peru and Australia are calling and wanting tours. A woman from Maine is building a home on a free lot in Marquette, and the town is about to get the program’s first two-story home since it began in late 2002.

“You’ve got to step outside the box sometimes and say, ‘Look at what we’re doing,’ ” said Jeff Hillman, a key player in the Hodgeman County Land Rush program, which offers the grant money to people willing to build a home in the western Kansas community. “It’s hard to encourage people to move to rural areas.”

Towns have to do something, leaders said, because for many years communities across the Great Plains have been suffering. They’ve watched family farms die out and once-loyal natives move away to more prosperous areas.

In Marquette, the program has saved the elementary school. The town plans to offer free commercial land to entrepreneurs who build a business in Marquette.

Mayor Steve Piper said the town has grown from 350 people to about 527.

• • •

The seeds were planted before Marquette took off.

About 10 years ago, a developer in Minneapolis, the county seat of Ottawa County just north of Salina, wasn’t able to follow through with a planned project. The city eventually acquired the land but did not know what to do with it.

Then an idea emerged. Give it away, someone suggested. The program was launched without much fanfare.

People came. They stayed.

“We didn’t have the mentality that if something’s broken we have to fix it,” said Mark Freel, economic development director for Minneapolis. “It became, ‘Here’s an opportunity. Let’s try to take advantage of it and do the best with it.’ ”

The free land program, which was implemented into the town’s long-range plan, prompted 20 new homes to be built in its first phase and eight more in the second. Seven lots remain.

The lots in Minneapolis are as large as a half acre.

“People are getting good yards for kids,” said John Cyr, executive director of Kansas’ North Central Regional Planning Commission. “Good yards to do landscaping so they feel they have an individual home, not just tract housing.”

The town has added about 50 children to the school district and seen steady growth. Voters passed a school bond issue in November and people are excited about the future, Freel said.

“Create a success story in your little town and it changes the attitude,” he said. “If attitudes are changed, in a short time people realize there is a sense of hope.”

People like Todd Wilson are coming home.

He grew up in Minneapolis and always thought he would like to move back one day and raise his children. The free land program allowed him to do that about five years ago.

“It was too good a deal to pass up,” said Wilson, who works at the town’s funeral home.

He and his wife, Shelly, built a three-bedroom, two-bath home for $120,000 on the free lot. They have since spent about $30,000 on a renovation and now have five bedrooms and three bathrooms. Their oldest son is a kindergartner at the elementary school and their youngest son, a 22-month-old, enjoys a large yard.

“When I talk to friends in Kansas City and tell them about the free land, they just don’t understand it,” Wilson said.

• • •

Marquette town leaders thought maybe they could attract enough families to save the school.

“We figured if we brought in one or two families a year for a few years that we’d really be doing something,” said Piper, the mayor. “Then we get these calls.”

Each time a news story runs about the Kansas programs, and people go to the Web site, e-mails and calls flood city managers from Ellsworth and Lincoln to Atwood and Coffeyville.

“I have a box chock-full of calls,” said Chris Sramek, the economic development director of Rawlins County, where Atwood is located. “We’ve had a good 20 to 25 people visit the community.”

Not bad for a county that’s seen its population decline over the past 70 years from 7,000 people to about 2,900.

One measure of success is how welcoming older residents are to the new ones.

“The question is, how embracing are they to these new citizens?” said David Proctor, director of the center for engagement and community development at Kansas State University. “Some communities … they’ll attract the new citizens. Others, they may be (close-minded) and it’s difficult for community members to reach out and embrace new ideas.”

That’s one thing Sramek has worried about. He would like to see the free land program bring in new families, help bring back young people who left, or keep those even younger from leaving.

“It’s not going to be easy for our older generation,” Sramek said. “They built it and now we’re transitioning to new people. … They’re just sitting back waiting for us to maybe prove ourselves.”

Defining ‘free’

So the land is free?

Well, for the most part.

In some towns, plots have special assessment fees attached. And additional money may be required to prepare the land for building. Of course, property taxes are due each year.

“In reality, it’s free to a point,” said Stanley Walker, director of the Lincoln County, Kan., Economic Development Foundation. “It depends on how you define free.”

Each town also has certain rules and regulations — such as the size of the home and the number of bedrooms. At least one community requires an appearance before the City Council before approval.
Notice three important points from this article:

1. "Smart growth" won't work in rural areas. People are attracted to rural areas because they want "good yards for kids," not "Manhattan style living."
2. Young families with children are the lifeblood of any community.
3. Rural towns that embrace growth and change, live. Towns that don't, die.

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