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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oldham Revives Homestead Act, Clings to Unsustainable Lifestyle

Two cheers and a half for the city of Oldham, where mayor and economic development president (why can't Madison combine those positions?) Roger Eide has announced free lots for building single-family homes. Applications are available online.

Why the half-cheer discount? Because Oldham is promoting its free lots program by portraying itself as a convenient bedroom community:

A variety of employment opportunities can be found within an easy commute from Oldham. There are businesses that have located or are expanding in the cities of Brookings, Madison, Sioux Falls, Arlington, Lake Preston, DeSmet and Howard [Roger Eide, City of Oldham, press release, 2008.10.23].

Regular readers know I'm all about our small towns making efforts to attract new residents and keep their local economies alive. Small towns have to build on what they have, and when it comes to jobs, Oldham doesn't have much to offer but proximity to jobs in other towns. Mayor Eide is being straight with prospective homebuyers about job options, and that's to be appreciated. But $4-per-gallon gasoline last summer showed us the limitations of an economic development model based on commuting. Even if experts assure us gas prices won't surge this year, oil and commuting are only going to get more expensive, not less.

Now we've probably got some chickens and eggs here: it's hard to bring new residents to town if you can't offer them jobs, but it's hard to create jobs if you don't have residents to fill them and places for those residents to reside.

If Oldham's neo-Homestead Act can attract new residents and make it possible for a working family or two to build a decent house that they couldn't otherwise afford in Madison or Brookings, then more power to 'em all. But in the long term, Oldham and other struggling small towns will want to be more than sleeping suburbs for bigger towns. They'll need to get creative and find ways to sustain their own local economies, with less dependence on cheap transportation.


  1. People demand more than just a plot of land to build a home on. It has been over 30 years since a new home was built in Oldham. Today folks want shopping selection, variety of employment opportunities, theater and arts opportunities. All those things that Madison has been losing the past five years. As a community, we need to do whatever it takes to attract new businesses, an additional grocery outlet, more industry and service businesses and bring back theater and concert opportunities that enrich our community and give its people something intelligent to do. Maybe it's time for a Community Events Center. Even something as simple as developing the poor farm into a swimming, boating and fishing recreation area for residents is far better than pulling up a bar stool every evening and considering it social enhancement. Creating a community lifestyle takes hard work and it must include everyone, not just a select few who only want to reap their own rewards.

  2. Good comment 7:52

    In other states people directly tied to economic development corporations can't even be a city employee, let alone a mayor or city commissioner. It's a conflict of interest since much of the funding is private.

    I would say Madison needs a city planner, which could be part of a full time city manager's job rather than having a part time mayor.

  3. The original posting on this was a little odd- I applaud them but... But what? I think people budget for commuting expenses just like everything else. Over the last 25 years of marriage and career history I have always commuted at least 1/2 hour to work. Though this has arguably not been an ideal situation, career opportunities for two working adults do not always line up where one's house happens to be.
    Cory's original post I think reflects a little of the 'ol liberal bias that consumption of fossil fuels is somehow a crime or otherwise immoral.
    I would argue that 4, 5 or even 10 dollar a gallon gas might be quite affordable to a commuter with a prius, jetta or something like that. The Oldham people are banking on this and I applaud them for their efforts.

  4. the 'ol liberal bias that consumption of fossil fuels is somehow a crime or otherwise immoral.

    Those lefty polar bears, migrating birds, and tropical storms.

  5. And what would you have the small towns of SD do Cory?

    Should we berate Oldham for trying to make their community better?

    Our studio is thriving in beautiful Rutland SD. Rutland is far smaller than Oldham. People have to drive here to use our services. Should we close the doors because people must drive here?

  6. Free land?! Would they let me put an energy-independent geodesic dome home on it?

  7. I think I'll take one of those lots in Oldham, put up a log cabin, dig my own well, put up a barn for a couple of horses and a wagon, and go back to living copmletely off the land. That might be where this country is heading anyway by the time O taxes us all to death and the payors decide enough is enough. But then that won't work either because I'm sure the horses fart too, and that contributes to global warming, and... What is a person to do???

  8. Michael: where do I berate? I think folks sometimes assume that everything I write is meant to be a harangue. Sometimes, I'm just thinking out loud, weighing pros and cons... and looking at the long term. Oldham, Rutland, et al. should not just

    Seeing the unsustainability of commuting doesn't require a liberal bias or moralizing, as our favorite superintendent suggests. Banking on affordable commuting is a gamble; you are taking a chance that fuel prices won't rise and/or that technology will solve your problem. Plenty of other things can go wrong with a business/community development model; it just seems odd to build such a potential disadvantage into one's plans. I do indeed applaud Oldham's efforts at revitalization; I also recognize that a return of $140/barrel oil would price a lot of people right out of even considering taking advantage of Oldham's offer. That's not a moral critique, just economic possibility.

    Stan, I think Oldham would be happy to have your dome, Anon's log cabin, or any other functional domicile that would bring folks to town.

  9. I don't berate anyone for trying, but if you haven't had a new home built in 30 years, there's a reason. People want resale value and building a new home in Oldham, Rutland or even Ramona, would be a poor economic choice if resale is important to you. Trends are trends and ignoring them won't make them go away. Small communities have been dying for 60 years. Any community under 1000 people has one foot in the grave already unless you're within 50 miles of Sioux Falls.

  10. Anon 6:19: If you can live that self-sufficiently, I'll fight any effort to tax your horse flatulence. You'd be doing enough good for the country to deserve a break. Go for it!

  11. We have had some relief in gas prices now, but that spike also led to a spike in local shopping. To listen to Mayor Hexom that makes us a success. Quite the opposite it shows how unstable small communities are when they are not self reliant. So many people shopped elsewhere because they were not content with Madison. A silly Shop Madison campaign won't help. People want a variety of affordable goods and services. Everyone should reread the post on 7:52. He or she gets it. Who should be the next mayor???


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