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Free land and no-strings cash aim to tempt people to small Midwestern towns — with mixed success

 Curtis, Nebraska has had a program in place for years to incentivize new resident. The town of 800 people gives away free plots of land to anyone who builds a house in the community, and hands out checks to those who enroll their children in the local public schools.
Elizabeth Rembert
/
Harvest Public Media
Curtis, Nebraska has had a program in place for years to incentivize new resident. The town of 800 people gives away free plots of land to anyone who builds a house in the community, and hands out checks to those who enroll their children in the local public schools.

When small-town charm isn’t enough to attract new residents, some struggling Midwest communities figure money might be.

Cities across the region offer cash and free land for those willing to make the move to smaller communities with room, and a need, for more people .

Curtis, Nebraska, is one of those towns hoping to add to its population of 800. It’s about 40 minutes south of Interstate 80 in central Nebraska, its downtown nestled in the valleys of the sandhills.

There’s a lot to be found there, according to city administrator Andrew Lee.

“They have a movie theater, they show new-run movies,” he said on a tour of the downtown. “There’s the library, law office, another bank right there, liquor store around the corner, car wash, insurance, there’s a restaurant called The Anvil.”

But most people don’t make the drive to find those amenities.

 The theater in Curtis's downtown plays newly released movies. It's one fixture on Curtis' main street, among banks, offices, restaurants and shops. Administrator Andrew Lee says most people don't make the drive off of Interstate-80 to find the small town's amenities.
Elizabeth Rembert
/
Harvest Public Media
The theater in Curtis's downtown plays newly released movies. It's one fixture on Curtis' main street, among banks, offices, restaurants and shops. Administrator Andrew Lee says most people don't make the drive off of Interstate-80 to find the small town's amenities.

“Most of the time, you’re gonna be missed,” Lee said. “They’re never going to look at you on a map and never going to see you. Not on a major highway, not on a major interstate. How do you put a spotlight on yourself?”

The answer to that question for Curtis? A modern, mini Homestead Act. You can get free land if you build a house, and cash in your pocket if you enroll your children in the local public schools.

Those types of incentives are becoming increasingly common across the Midwest, with uneven success, to reverse generations of exodus from rural areas. They gained even more momentum when the pandemic forced the workplace to become more remote. Meanwhile, rural areas have become bolder about the advantages they have over city life.

“You can be a personal assistant for somebody in California or New York, they’re going to pay you maybe 30, 35 bucks an hour,” Lee said. “And then out here, you’re living like a king.”

Topeka will give you up to $15,000 for moving to the capital of Kansas for remote work, or for certain employers. Buy a new home in Newton, Iowa, and the city will cut you a $10,000 check. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Quincy, Illinois, also offer awards aimed at bringing in new residents.

So far, the programs seem successful at grabbing the attention of potential residents. The offers stand out and make a move to an underdog area seem more palatable.

But it’s unclear whether one-time awards can bring small towns and cities back from the brink.

In Curtis, where the incentives have been in place for years, several houses stand on a bluff overlooking a golf course with a pond. All of the houses were developed on lots that the city gave away as part of the incentive program.

Almost all of the lots in the program have been claimed, and 12 houses have been built. In such a small town, Lee says those families have impacted the community.

 These four houses were all built on lots that were given away by the town of Curtis, as part of its incentive program for new residents. Twelve houses have been built through the program, which administrator Andrew Lee said has positively impacted the small community of 800 people.
Elizabeth Rembert
/
Harvest Public Media
These four houses were all built on lots that were given away by the town of Curtis, as part of its incentive program for new residents. Twelve houses have been built through the program, which administrator Andrew Lee said has positively impacted the small community of 800 people.

And adding houses can be a gamechanger for rural communities dealing with housing problems. After all, almost a third of the nation’s houses without hot water are in small towns.

“If you don’t build new housing, basically you’re going to dry up and die eventually,” Bruce Showalter, the housing director in Newton, Iowa, said. “Because those houses are just gonna get older and older and more run down.”

Newton was dealing with the aftermath of Maytag — its largest employer — leaving town in 2007. The washing machine company took thousands of jobs with it and the city was reckoning with its new future. A survey concluded that the town was old — its population was old, and younger residents were put off by the old housing stock.

“If we didn’t do something, our population was going to dwindle away,” Showalter said. “We knew that we had to do something or we were going to die.”

About 10 years later, Newton’s program has helped build more than 100 houses in the city of almost 16,000 people.

A similar initiative wasn’t so successful for North Platte, a city of about 24,000 in central Nebraska.

North Platte’s chamber of commerce was willing to add cash to employers’ new-hire packages. The group wanted to show that it had skin in the game when it came to attracting new talent to North Platte.

But Gary Person, the head of the city’s chamber, says somewhere wires were crossed about the program.

The program received intense press attention. Person said his office fielded thousands of phone calls and contacts from all over the country. The officials behind the initiatives in Curtis, Newton and Topeka said they’ve also managed similar levels of phone calls.

“It was free publicity,” Person said. “If we had to pay for that kind of a marketing exposure, it would have been off-the-charts expensive, but we didn't have to spend a dime because the uniqueness of the program took care of itself.”

But most of the calls to North Platte were from people under the impression that the chamber would write a check for $10,000 to anyone who moved to the city. Person had to explain that you needed a new-hire letter from one of the participating employers to qualify for the award.

“And we'd probably lose 90% of them right off the bat,” he said. “You know, like, ‘Oh, I thought you're just giving money away just for living there.’ And I go, ‘I don't know, anybody in their right mind would do that.’”

North Platte recruited 23 people. They’re attorneys and engineers and bankers who contribute to the community, but Person said the math was against the program — the city had enough money set aside to pay bonuses to 50 more new residents.

The city shut down the program, and now it’s using that money on projects intended to make North Platte a more attractive place to live.

Economist Tim Bartik sees promise in that shift in strategy.

Instead of padding the pockets of new residents, he said towns could “stick in your little jogging trails, I guess you get a few yoga studios to open up, brewpubs and hip coffee shops. And, you know, you find a few weirdo indie musicians, whatever.”

Bartik, who works at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said the sure-fire way to draw more people is to make it a better place to live.

“I mean, how many people are willing to permanently move to an area that has lousy amenities?” he asked, “If just because someone gives them a one-time payment of $10,000?”

 Topeka established its incentive program in December 2019, after a decade of investments into amenities like an art district and downtown revitalization. The initiative was inspired by the discovery that 40% of Topeka's workforce were choosing to live outside the county and commute in for work.
Courtesy of the Greater Topeka Partnership
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Courtesy of the Greater Topeka Partnership
Topeka established its incentive program in December 2019, after a decade of investments into amenities like an art district and downtown revitalization. The initiative was inspired by the discovery that 40% of Topeka's workforce were choosing to live outside the county and commute in for work.

Bob Ross, Topeka’s vice president of marketing, said his city prioritized indie musicians and the like before starting the incentive program in 2019. For a decade, the capital city invested in cutting poverty and revitalizing its downtown.

Now he said Topeka’s program can function as more than just free cash. The premise gets people’s attention, and can be the first step in considering a new city.

“It's just overcoming that mental block of what Kansas represents to you,” he said. “Or even appreciating the fact that Topeka even exists.”

So maybe for rural places and small towns real estate mantra location, location, location isn’t so much the key as amenities, amenities, amenities.

“The incentives allow people to come into the city and discover what it has to offer,” Ross said. “Once you get a taste of the lifestyle that we have to offer, you generally want to stay.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.