Archive for Saturday, April 3, 2010

Free land can’t save small towns

April 3, 2010


— For leaders of this town on the Great Plains, the plan seemed brilliant.

Buy up property just down from the high school and near a creek in this town tucked inside the rolling hills of north-central Kansas. Put in a couple of streets. Install all the utilities to make it a good-sized neighborhood one day.

After investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the property, the town then lot by lot would give it away.

Free land could lure new families, just like the old Homestead Act once had peopled these Plains.

Before long, the Lincoln County community of about 1,200 would have fresh faces and nice homes feeding the tax base and filling schools.

If only.

Six years later, the development at the corner of Lost and First streets is bare. No homes, no kids. And the adjacent cul-de-sac on School Street, designed to hold half of those new residents, has just two houses, one bought by the mayor hoping to spark interest — that mayor has since died — and another built by a contractor and rented out.

“It seemed at the time we’d have so many applications we’d have to sort through and decide who’d get the land,” said Rose Gourley, Lincoln city clerk. “It just never happened that way.”

Sure, a few towns in the middle of Kansas told success stories early on: Marquette, Ellsworth and Minneapolis.

“Free land put us on the map,” said Darryl Talbott, principal of Marquette Elementary School. Since 2003, the town had so many takers that its population went from 527 to nearly 700.

But for at least half of the 12 towns on the Web site, early hopes withered away just like their census numbers over the years.

Tescott made its offers a couple of years ago. No one came running, but the town’s still hopeful.

“We’re struggling,” said Joann Schwindt, city clerk of the town 15 miles east of Lincoln. “We just lost our restaurant, lost our store. We just have a handful of businesses left.”

Shane Marler, the Peabody Economic Development executive director, agreed. “Every town from here to shinola has identified this as a problem. We’ve got to market our way of life, pace of life.”

Middle of nowhere

Overall, because of growth in metro areas, Great Plains population doubled between 1950 and 2007. But the numbers are much bleaker for two-thirds of its counties. Census researchers found that 244 of the 376 counties they considered had slipping counts. Sixty-nine lost more than half.

As the population drains away, towns find it takes more than a giveaway to stem the tide. Some are simply too isolated, too far from “big city” trimmings or job choices.

“It’s great to get free land, but once you get here, you have to have something to do. The first question people ask when they call is, ‘What about jobs?”’ said Marvin Loomis, city administrator of Mankato, about 20 miles from Nebraska.

That’s key, said Kirk McClure, professor of urban planning at Kansas University.

“The likeliness that free land is going to bring people is so small,” McClure said. “People don’t pick a town and say, ‘Gee, I’ll find a job.’ Realistically, there has to be a job there first.”

Initial interest

Gourley has a manila file about two inches thick. Thumbing through its contents, she shakes her head.

“We had the interest,” she said. “I’d forgotten how much.”

Back in 2004 and 2005, the phone rang so often at Lincoln City Hall that Gourley struggled to get other work done. Call after call, she recited the free-land spiel to Californians, Floridians and many others from Midwest states.

The town sent out so many information packets that workers at the bank had to help.

Twenty-one lots; 12,000 to 35,000 square feet. To get one, just agree to build a home of at least 1,300 square feet with a garage. “If we were going to do this, we wanted to have something nice,” said Mayor Glenn Stegman, a man in his early 60s who’s lived half his life in Lincoln “A nice development to entice people.”

For a while, it seemed the $500,000 gamble would pay off. Visitors came to see the central Kansas town, which has a downtown dominated by limestone structures. Others kept in contact through e-mails and phone calls.

A Texas family said they were moving up, but never showed. One from California signed the agreement, but never sent the deposit.

Then there was the fellow from Sioux Falls, S.D. He excited town leaders with his plans for a “huge” house he would build. He also planned to expand his contracting business and open a Kansas office there. Gourley’s eyes still light up over it.

But in so many cases, she said, “it always seemed like there was something.” That time, the man’s mother became ill. He called to say they could give the land to someone else.

“Yeah, I’m surprised no one came,” said Tim Meier, born and reared near Lincoln. “People go to higher-paying jobs and aren’t any better off than we are here. They just don’t realize it.”


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 months ago

Industrial agriculture killed the small towns. As long as it dominates the way we get our food, those small towns won't be coming back.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 11 months ago

Oh, do let us go back to 1890s farm technology! It would be such fun.

Richard Heckler 7 years, 11 months ago

Is there a grocery store,laundromat,hardware store,car repair shop and gas station? Or a small Free State Brewery / cafe?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 months ago

"Oh, do let us go back to 1890s farm technology!"

Some of the technology of that era is perfectly fine. But there's been plenty of agricultural research done since then that has produced improved methods that don't require importing billions of gallons of oil to operate, and the continual state of war required to keep the spigot open.

imastinker 7 years, 11 months ago

Commercial agriculture was just a byproduct of the tight margins and expensive equipment that farmers have to maintain. The more you can use that expensive equipment the more margin you have and the more money you have to buy other labor saving equipment and increase margins even further.

It's happened to every other industry as well and isn't necessarily a bad thing. The alternative is high food prices. There's a reason a bushel of corn is selling for about what it did 75 years ago.

imastinker 7 years, 11 months ago

The towns that will succeed are the towns that attract industry and manufacturing. It will be hard for some of these areas to do, but several small towns in eastern kansas have been pretty successful. Washington, Concordia, Sabetha, Marysville, Holton, and even Meriden have some pretty heavy manufacturing going on there. As long as there is manufacturing and the good jobs that go with them, housing will be strong and commerce will follow.

Actually, many small towns with jobs in them that are far away from the population centers are much stronger because they can't be bedroom communities. The residents shop in town and don't go to the city every day so have to frequent the local businesses. I really enjoy travelling to some of these small communities in the more rural parts of the state because they have healthy downtowns and commercial districts and ususally a lot of activities for the residents.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 11 months ago

"There's a reason a bushel of corn is selling for about what it did 75 years ago." Except that it isn't. In 1935, the USDA report average price per bushel of corn at $0.63, adjusted to 2007 dollars, that $9.56. For 2008 (the latest year this particular speadsheet covered), the price of a bushel of corn was $3.78 cents. As of 2 days ago: "Corn for May delivery fell 9.5 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $3.45 a bushel. The USDA estimates farmers will plant 88.8 million acres of corn this year, a 3 percent jump from each of the past two years."

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