Free land fails to draw new homesteaders to Kansas towns

Kansas City StarMarch 30, 2010 

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.

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."

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 the University of Kansas.

"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."

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