AT A GLANCE
- Over the last century, small towns in America have experienced rapid outmigration.
- Government officials of small towns are looking for ways to innovate and bring young people back.
- Incentives like free land, cash grants, and tuition reimbursement are out there for new homebuyers.
Though a flood of people have left rural America over the last century—54 percent of our citizens were living in small towns in 1910, a mere 19 percent do today—less-populated parts of the country are working creatively to stem the tide of depopulation.
Through innovative incentive programs, government officials in rural states like Nebraska and Minnesota (as well as bigger cities like New Haven, Connecticut) are breathing new life into their communities. Here’s a look at how small towns are experimenting with giving away land, reimbursing tuition, and are compelling buyers to move to towns that could use an economic boost.
1. Free Land!
Once a bustling agriculture and manufacturing town, Loup City, Nebraska’s population has been in a tailspin since World War II. Just 1,000 residents call the charming city smack-dab in the center of the state home, but if Dawn Skibinski, executive director of Sherman County Economic Development, has anything to with it, that number is going to shoot up.
The plan for growth started nearly five years ago. Loup City wanted to create a buzz, so officials decided to build a small neighborhood near town. They named it the John Subdivision and then did something surprising. “We improved the roads, sewer lines were installed, and we decided to give the lots, free of cost, to anyone who would commit to building a home within a year,” says Skibinski. “This was our way to turn around a town with very little new home building happening.”
Today, the John Subdivision only has one no-cost property left. As soon as it’s claimed, they’ll embark on a new giveaway and hopefully welcome new people. According to Skibinski, “Next, we move on to develop an alfalfa field!” She continues, “We love to bring new people to the area, and we get a lot of attention from the press—people get very excited when they hear the word ‘free.’ I get two to three calls a week from people who want to take advantage of the program.”
Dawn Skibinski and her colleagues have a very clear goal in sight. As she plainly puts it, “I grew up around here, and I don’t want to see Loup City die.”
You can also find free land giveaways in…
Camden, Maine. A New England town whose motto fits with its natural allure: “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea.” It’s a charming little village where an entrepreneur can score free property—as in any available lot in town. The only catch is that the business owner must hire at least 24 locals and their industry must be environmentally friendly.
2. Free Money!
Another incentive option for small towns looking to lure new residents? Cold, hard cash. The community of Harmony, Minnesota, does just that, through grants from its Economic Development Authority, offering up to $12,000 to anyone who builds a new home in the town.
Like Loup City, Harmony also has just over 1,000 residents. Chris Giesen, the coordinator for the Economic Development Authority, describes how the Home Construction Rebate program came to be. “In 2014, we began to have a discussion in Harmony: How do we attract people to move here? How do we increase variety in housing stock? Most of the homes here are old, and we saw young people turned away. We asked ourselves: What are the barriers?”
A plan was hatched, offering a cash-grant to anyone who constructs a new home in Harmony. “We considered many options and realized that giving away money is preferable to land, because the cash is usually put back into the community—you can buy things like furniture, building materials, and carpeting locally.”
Harmony also kept its red tape to a minimum. “I can help people write the whole application in a few minutes–it’s only one page,” says Giesen. “The only requirement is that we have to have approval before breaking ground. When the exterior is finished, we cut them a check. This program is all about neighbors helping neighbors.”
Giesen couldn’t be prouder of the Economic Development Authority’s success. “We are in the process of renewing the program now,” he says. “What this program does is bring people in from elsewhere—we’ve been tracking newcomers and most are coming from out of town—and they come in and buy groceries, put money into our banks, they become part of our tax base.”
“We’re investing,” says Giesen. “We’re not dying. The idea was to get the word out—and it has been incredible.”
You can also find free money giveaways in…
New Haven, Connecticut. Most well-known as the home to Yale University, New Haven is relatively economically depressed outside of the prestigious college’s ivy-covered walls. To fix it, the town has a program that grants up to $10,000, interest-free, for a down payment or closing costs on a new home. Even better? City employees, teachers, firefighters, police officers, and members of the military are eligible for an additional $2,500, and New Haven also grants forgivable loans up to $30,000 to homeowners who want to make energy-saving upgrades.
3. Free Education!
Once a bustling manufacturing center and destination for honeymooners, the mid-size town of Niagara Falls, New York, has fallen on hard times and steadily declining population. The city of about 50,000 on the border of New York State and Canada has come up with a clever plan to draw and maintain younger residents—tuition reimbursements.
The catch? In exchange for $7,000 worth of student-loan repayment over the course of two years, recent college graduates must agree to rent or buy a residence near the town’s depressed Main Street.
Seth Piccirillo, Niagra Falls’ community development director, came up with the plan in 2014 after reading multiple news stories about recent college graduates drowning in student-loan debt. With roughly 10 percent of Niagra Falls residents were moving out of town every decade, Piccirillo’s hometown was dying. Not only that, but federal funding was at stake: Niagara Falls needs to maintain a population of 50,000 or above for federal funding to come through. Piccirillo explains, “Fewer people means less attention in the government’s eyes. You need people in your neighborhoods.” With his student-loan repayment plan, he says, “We are basically putting together the population requirement with the human need to create a small solution.”
You can also find free money giveaways in…
73 counties in Kansas. The state of Kansas is working to draw new residents to low-population counties in its Rural Opportunity Zones (ROZ). Those who move to one of the 73 counties that offer student-loan repayment are eligible for up to $3,000 per year towards their debt, for a generous maximum of $15,000.