There's Still Free Land Out West
Kansas towns offer building lots to grow population.
Map showing the location of Marquette, Kansas.
Marquette, Kansas – Tammy Young was watching television at her home near Riverside, California, about an hour east of Los Angeles, when she saw an ad about a town in Kansas that was giving away land. Young, her parents, and her daughters, ages 11 and 13, got in the car and headed for the Smoky Hills of south-central Kansas.
The town is Marquette, a village of brick storefronts and old homes where a big Saturday night event means the stores stay open until 9 p.m. and somebody wins a $100 gift certificate.
Young and her family are among about 50 families that have responded to the offer of a free building lot for anyone who would build a home and live in it for at least a year.
The land giveaway, a takeoff of the 1862 Homestead Act that brought about a million settlers to Kansas, has increased Marquette’s population from 527 people in 2000 to nearly 700 now. And it has brought a whole lot of attention to the town.
“We’ve gotten oodles of publicity,” says Mayor Steve Piper. “I’ve done some 20 television interviews and been on national TV six times. For a town this size, that’s unheard of.”
But more importantly, the town has managed to stop the slow hemorrhage of people that caused it to lose its high school in the 1980s and was threatening its grade school.
In 2003, the city council was chewing on this problem when it came up with the idea of the land giveaway.
“We were having a discussion on growth and some of the other towns around us had several new homes,” recalls Piper. “We didn’t have any new homes. And somebody asked, ‘Where would you build one?’”
Next thing you know, town leaders were forking out $100,000 for 50 acres of cornfield that they immediately began turning into 80 free building lots, complete with utilities. Within six months of that fateful city council meeting, the first houses were going up.
Marquette is not the only Kansas town to come up with this notion. The town of Minneapolis, Kansas, has been offering building lots for a nominal fee of $1,500 since 1999. But perhaps because of its extensive publicity, Marquette has become a destination for leaders of other small towns looking for a way to grow.