The Kansas land rush began at the turn of the century — the 21st century, that is. Marquette, located in the southeastern part of the state, grabbed the headlines four years ago by offering free building lots for families looking for a “friendly, small town atmosphere” where life is “relaxed, safe and fun.” In nearby Ellsworth, the “Welcome Home Plan” also includes free lots, while Minneapolis, north of Salina, offers free lots nearly a half acre in size. And Atwood, near the Colorado border, offers free lots for new homes and new businesses. Atwood’s website sums up the message of many rural communities: “Where else can you enjoy a cup of coffee at the local café, and everyone there is your friend?!!!!!”
Today, communities stretching across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota offer free or bargain-priced lots for anyone willing to build a home and live there for at least five years. Other towns offer tax incentives or grants to attract new residents. In Iowa, Hampton State Bank has committed $1 million in low-interest loans to encourage alumni from county high schools to move back to the area. The “Come Home to Franklin County™” program, approaching $500,000 in loans, is now being offered to other rural banks.
Throughout the Central States, communities are initiating a variety of strategies to attract new residents and, equally important, to keep existing residents through the revitalization of their residential and commercial districts.
Yet according to recent trends, these communities have their work cut out for them. In Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and North and South Dakota, for example, 89 percent of cities and towns have fewer than 3,000 people. Hundreds have fewer than 1,000. Although small towns and rural communities have increased a modest 2.2 percent since 2000 (compared with 6 percent in metropolitan areas), many communities have experienced declining populations during the last few years. North Dakota, in fact, has lost 1.2 percent of its population since 2000.
It’s not all bleak, however. Working through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program, small towns from Rogers, Arkansas, to Clarksville, Missouri, to Burlington, Iowa, to name just a few, have successfully revitalized their downtown business districts. The Main Street Program, which stresses public-private partnerships, is being implemented by nearly 2,000 communities in 42 states. Over the last 20 years, the program has resulted in more than 230,000 new jobs and nearly 60,000 new businesses.
Moreover, many smaller cities, such as Dubuque, Iowa, have completed significant revitalization projects to improve the quality of life for residents and to simulate economic development. Lincoln, Nebraska, another example, is now in the early stages of the Antelope Valley Project, which combines flood control, transportation and community redevelopment.
Since 2001, the USDA’s Rural Development program has invested more than $72 billion to help rural areas. The proposed Rural Communities Investment Act would provide tax incentives to banks for low-interest loans in communities of 2,500 or less, and the New Homestead Act, to be introduced again this year, would provide tax credits for rural home loans.
For community banks, offering low-interest loans, becoming involved in community redevelopment efforts and participating in public-private partnerships are just three examples of positive steps that will help not only the community, but the bank as well.
This month on BankNews.com, we have compiled articles, reports and online resources related to small town and rural community revitalization. Take a few minutes to visit our website and become better prepared to help your community have a brighter future. And be sure to send us your story of helping revitalize and redevelop your rural community, small town, or city neighborhood.
Send your story to Michael Scheibach, executive editor, or call him at 913-261-7072. We would like to share your success on BankNews.com.