Lincoln, Kan. 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.
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 kansasfreeland.com 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.”
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.”