Free land in the heartland
Small towns in Kansas, North Dakota and other states are rolling out the red carpet for newcomers.
December 23, 2004: 4:36 PM EST
Sarah Max, CNN/Money senior writer

(CNN/Money) In June, Kimberly and Paul Bayless sold their house in Las Vegas and moved their family to the tiny town of Ellsworth, Kansas seeking a better quality of life - a parcel of free land didn't hurt either.

The family had been looking for an escape route out of the city, where their commutes were long and quality time was scarce, but didn't know how they could manage such a move. "Each year I felt more and more claustrophobic," said Kimberly.

Then, after Paul was downsized from his job as a software engineer, Kimberly read a newspaper article about free land in Kansas.

Ellsworth, population of 2,900, is one of many communities throughout the Great Plains looking to reverse decades of population decline by offering free parcels of land. Not only that, they're also giving down payment assistance, tax rebates, breaks for small business and even the promise of high-speed Internet access.

Although the federal government stopped giving away free land when it repealed the Homestead Act in 1976, cities, school districts, economic development groups and individuals in rural communities have been donating land for the cause.

In Ellsworth County, for example, there are 23 lots available for free to individuals, assuming they're pre-qualified to build a house that is at least 1,000 square feet and agree to build a house on the land within two years time.

In addition to the land, families with children stand to receive $1,500 to $3,000 toward a down payment when they buy in the area. "Each new child is worth an additional $6,000 to our school district from the state," said Anita Hoffhines, executive director of Ellsworth County Economic Development.

In nearby Marquette, 80 building lots became available for the taking in May, according to Carol Gould, director of the Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives at Kansas State University, and nearly half have been claimed. In Minneapolis, Kan., newcomers not only have dibs on free land, they qualify for a 75-percent rebate on city and school taxes for five years.

Some rural communities in North Dakota have similar incentives. New residents of Crosby, N.D., for example, are eligible for free land and a welcome package that includes free memberships to the golf club, hockey club and curling club, as well as $500 worth of gift certificates redeemable at local businesses.

These efforts may be paying off. According to Census statistics released this week, North Dakota's population between July 2003 and 2004 grew for the first time since 1996.

"Pitchfork fondue" in Medora, N.D.

Of course, city slickers need to look past the freebies and make sure they really do want to live in a small town.

Six months after their move, the Bayless family is happy with their decision. Kimberly substitute teaches and stays home with her youngest of four children, while Paul is enjoying a new career as a long-haul truck driver. "He's loving it," said Kimberly. "It's not the high stress of the computer field."

Still, the family has had to make some adjustments. "I sometimes forget that I can't just run out and buy anything I want any hour of the day," she said.

Calling all entrepreneurs

You don't need to become a truck driver to move to a small town.

At the same time rural communities are recruiting new homeowners, they are also going out of their way to attract entrepreneurs and telecommuters who, they think, can benefit from the low cost of living, tax incentives, skilled labor pool and the do-anything spirit of a small town.

"People out here are willing to try new things," said Hoffhines. "When you have fewer resources you have to be more creative."

When Shawn and Esther Oehlke decided to quit their day jobs in Albuquerque, N.M. to work on their start-up company, SEO Precision Inc., they found Northwest North Dakota. "We targeted five of the most rural states looking for business incentives," said Esther, who grew up in Long Island, NY. "North Dakota came out on top because of all of its tax incentives."

In August, the Oehlkes moved to the town of Crosby, population 1,200, and began leasing a 16,000-square-foot downtown building from the city for a "sweetheart of a deal."

The North Dakota State Fair in Minot.  
The North Dakota State Fair in Minot.

The hundred-year-old mercantile building seems like an unlikely place for a company that makes precision steering mirrors for laser beams, but with the help of locals the Oehlkes have set up shop on the main floor and converted the basement into class-10,000 clean room. They live in two apartments on the second floor and have turned the rest of the upstairs into short-term rentals, which have been popular with people in town for business in the oil industry.

Under their lease agreement, the town will convert part of the main floor into a community tech center with 12 desktop computers with high-speed Internet.

"High-speed Internet is one of the ways small places are overcoming isolation," said Gould. "In North Central Kansas there is even a system of antennas on grain elevators and water towers for wireless Internet."

So you want to move to Kansas?

It should go without saying that if you're serious about quitting the city or suburbs for the simplicity of a small town, you'll want to make sure you can handle life without Starbucks and the multi Cineplex.

Meanwhile, you can get more information about free land and other small-town goodies online.

In Nebraska, 60-year-old sisters Betty Sayers and Nancy Herhahn are getting ready to send thousands of postcards to former residents of their hometown, Holdrege, in an effort to drive traffic to their site Business Beyond the Farm and, ultimately, persuade town alumni to move back.

Launched last week, has links to a handful of communities offering free land in Kansas.

Six counties in Northwestern North Dakota, meanwhile, have joined forces and launched the site, Prairie Opportunity with the tag line "Do you have what it takes to be a 21st Century pioneer?"

"Odds are, you are not a candidate for NW North Dakota," the site discloses.

On the off chance you are a candidate, have they got a deal for you.  Top of page

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