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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Small Town Development: You've Got to Want It

Sometimes even cash and free land aren't enough to keep new people on the prairie. AP reports that the town of Hazelton, North Dakota, population 240, offered free lots and $20K toward new homes and $50K toward new businesses. One Florida family—one— took Hazelton up on the offer. The Tristanis gave it a go for four years. Now, despite low taxes, low cost of living, and a good school, they've given up.

The article cites lots of reasons, like the cold and lack of jobs. But the biggest reason may be cultural:

...the family also found a cliquey community that treated them like outsiders. "For my wife, it's been a culture shock," he said.

Rural communities across the Great Plains, fighting a decades-long population decline, are trying a variety of ways to attract outsiders. But the Tristanis show how the efforts can fail even at a time when many people are desperate.

"It's been quite an experience, 50-50 at best," Tristani said. "It hasn't been easy. No one really wants new people here" [James MacPherson, "Florida Family Gives up on Small-Town North Dakota," AP via Yahoo News, 2010.02.15].

"Not everybody fits in a small town," says Tom Weiser, a Hazelton resident who helped develop the free-land economic development project. Unfortunately, that's the conclusion reached by every one of the hundreds of people he says inquired about the town's giveaway incentives.

Perhaps it is comforting to say some folks just aren't a good fit for a community. But small towns can't afford to be picky. Saying some people don't fit in our small rural communities assumes that there is a way our communities should be and that it is more important to preserve the status quo than to let our communities evolve to make a place for the new people we need to survive and grow.

Miami blogger Kyle Munzenrieder takes a harder hit at small-town culture. I won't go as far as he and pick Miami over the prairie... but he and I might agree that expecting new people to come rejuvenate your small town but not create any change is an contradictory recipe for failure.

Growth is change. You've got to want. From the sounds of it, Hazelton didn't really want it. Does your small town? How ready is your town—Madison, Howard, Flandreau, etc.—to embrace not just new homes and businesses and members of the tax rolls but new ideas and new lifestyles?


  1. There is always a segment of the population that hates everything. It doesn't matter what it is, how they will benifit from it, or how the community will benifit from it.

    I'm 99% sure I heard this from Rod, he can correct me if I am wrong. He coined something that I will never forget:

    CAVE= Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

    I don't know what causes this mentality, but if someone could figure it out, please let me know.

  2. Don't be so quick to blame the small town. There could be many reasons why the family wants to go back home (notice I said home). A small town in a northern state is a far cry from growing up in Florida. Maybe the people moving there missed the culture and climate they were used to. It's no one's fault, it is just the way life is. My sister lived in a variety of states across the country while her husband climbed the corporate ladder. They later came back to SD because they chose to. They didn't blame the culture of Colorado, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, or Montana. They just missed home.

    Yes, there are different cultures to a certain extent in the various parts of this nation. We choose to live in SD because we like it. Others choose the south or the mountains or the desert. No place is bad, just different. And all places are good places to live, even small towns in the Dakotas.

  3. Above was me, Nonnie. For some reason the name thingie didn't take.

  4. These people's parents needed assistance but did not want to move to North Dakota. The article also said these incentives only work when a community is within 30 minutes from a bigger place (they were 45 from Bismark). People expect services or access to them. For this reason I don't have high expectations for Madison. Small townS have a certain segment that don't really want change if it threatens their place in the pecking order. These people were harassed by a business competitor.

  5. Cory:

    Your story reinforces the entire upper tier rewilding concept:


    Humans are ill-suited to withstand long periods of brutal cold, lashing winds, and isolation. The vastness of habitat far more suited to megafauna and waterfowl seems wasted on subsidized, unsustainable patent agriculture practices.

  6. Larry: "continental-scale conservation"? Whew! I do like folks who think big. But would we have to remove humanity from the Plains? How much room is there for us and our culture in the wilderness?

  7. Cory:

    I believe this is the anchor proposal:

    Encourage and support ranchers, the CRST and others to multiply this template:

    Corridors connecting open ranges could facilitate slaughter regimens. More training in wildlife biology and range sciences could dovetail immersions in cultural heritage.

    Humans are already migrating south, especially for the winter months; US-85, I-29, and I-15 are a steady stream of Canadians escaping winter's brutality. I see some intrepid RVers headed north now.

    Bismarck could be part of a much bigger solution by sending its off-season workforce south rather than expending resources.

    Just for example, Oklahoma's winters are milder and they spend far less on snow removal than North Dakota does.

    Summer-driven tourism could bring needed dollars to otherwise depressed rural economies.

    Here's a thumbnail sketch of a market-based policy solution:

    Water quality and availabiliy will force decisions driving human migration trends; industrial ag has seen to that.

  8. Precious "old water" aqufers are being emptied by irrigators sending it evaporating into the atmosphere.
    More catchwater reservoirs would conserve tiled "new water" from running off into lakes and recycled for ag uses.

    Aquifer water should be reserved for human consumption; the sequestered essential cell salts sustain our electrobiochemistry.

    Madison and other towns like it could be "growing" its own water for gardens and greenhouses rather than sending it to the Gulf of Mexico.

  9. I wish readers would listen to this outstanding interview with Sen. Jon Tester(D), Montana. He has such a clear understanding for wildlands issues:


    Sorry for the "spam," Cory. The link at my header is to my blogger account.


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