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Small Kansas Town Attracts New Residents with Free Land Offer - 2003-10-01

Residents of Marquette, Kansas have heard the horror stories of tiny communities, like theirs, in peril of aging populations that aren't re-invigorated before a town dies out. To fight the potential death of their small town, the citizens of Marquette are giving away land to anyone willing to build a house on it and live there for a year. Matt Hackworth reports on this modern-day homesteading effort on the Kansas prairie.

It's a plot of windswept dirt now. But in a matter of months, part of this tract will be a home site for Bill Lilly and his family of four.

"We're gonna have this lot right over here. We're gonna have a nice view to the back, and we're setting up with Oakwood Homes about getting a modular built for us, and we're gonna set it right over there," said Mr. Lilly.

Blue ribbons tied to wooden stakes flap in the wind, and mark what will be the Lillys' yard. They'll have a nice view of soybean and wheat fields complete with a weathered barn in the distance. But it's not the view that drew the nurse to this central Kansas town of 550. It was the offer of free land, and a smaller, friendlier school for his kids.

The middle school band is practicing on a stage at one end of Marquette Elementary School's gym. Though the school has nine grades, fewer than 130 students attend class here. Some classrooms sit empty. There are only 18 students total in the third and fourth grade. Marquette Elementary Principal Wayne Moorehead says there are so few students here that district officials discussed moving 6th, 7th and 8th graders to a school 14 kilometers away. "We've seen budget cuts and prices rise and somewhere things have to give. It's a huge issue in a community like this," he said.

It was a big enough issue for Marquette's leaders to seek a way to boost school enrollment. They raised $100,000 through donations and financing, enough to buy 20 hectares on the edge of town, to be subdivided and given to strangers.

"It's kind of a no-brainer; you stop and think about it. People are worth more than a vacant lot, by far," said Marquette mayor Steve Piper, adding that the land is worth as much as $10,000 per site. The new homeowners will just have to pay taxes on the property and for the use of the town water and sewer lines. According to Mayor Piper, it's a good deal for his community.

"You're gonna collect property taxes, you're gonna collect water and sewer charge each month," he said. "So, you can sit there with this vacant piece of ground you're trying to sell and may hold it forever and not collect hardly any tax at all or you can see a new home go on it, they have children in school that brings more money into the community."

A church bell rings over the town square. Flyers posted in shop windows along the main street tout the appeal of small-town living. They show pictures of smiling residents playing with their kids in the town's swimming pool.

According to banker Allan Lindfors the effort to market Marquette is based largely on its nostalgic image. "A lot of people have moved here from maybe bigger cities or maybe came back here once they had kids because they wanted to have that small school, small teacher-student ratio," he said. "I'm afraid if we lost our school, we might as well live in a larger city since there isn't anything for the kids, it would eventually dry up the town."

Towns like Marquette sprouted from the American prairie in the 1800s as the federal government gave away land to people willing to move west and start farms and communities. Marquette's leaders saw a nearby town give away land to attract residents. Just 15 new homes were built there, but Marquette's vision is considerably more ambitious. All 21 lots in its first land giveaway were quickly grabbed up, and the town is about to start a second round, hoping the offer will draw people here in much the same way as the lure of homesteading brought settlers to this part of Kansas in the 1800s.