MARQUETTE, KS (KCTV) -- Many rural communities in the United States are struggling. But some are finding creative ways to grow.
In Marquette, Kansas, city leaders developed a way to bring new residents inside the city limits by giving them a free plot of land to build on.
Steve Piper was the mayor of the town in 2005 when the town first developed the idea. He runs the only grocery store in the small town of about 650 residents. In 2005, the Marquette School District was in danger of consolidating with nearby Lindsborg. But, city leaders knew they probably could not convince an employer to move into town.
"You might as well bang your head against a brick wall trying to get jobs in a small town," he said. "We said let's bring the people in and give them free land and get the people."
The city raised money through donations and grants to purchase approximately 50 acres on the edge of town, then divided the land up into 80 lots.
"We said, 'here they are folks, come and get them,'" Piper said.
He said 30 or so families quickly moved into the new lots within a few years.
Some families, like Susan McDonald and her husband, took a 2nd lot.
"It was just too good to pass up," McDonald said. "Everybody was so friendly."
She noted that the move to Marquette wasn't just about the free land. She was impressed by the tightly knit community and its walkability. She and her husband made the lot their own, with a large green two-story house, rose bushes and a scenic orchard.
Piper, too, acknowledged the small town's charm.
"Some people call us a little Mayberry," he joked.
But free land couldn't fix everything. Piper said that the 2008 housing collapse slowed down the growth in the town. Eventually the school district did consolidate, though Marquette's population has held steady for the last decade.
"It's an everyday struggle you're fighting in a small town," Piper said.
Piper and others in Marquette still consider the free land program a success. There are more than 30 free lots remaining in town. Residents only have to pay for hookup and utility fees, which average around $400/year.
Allan Lindsfors, a local banker who served on the city council when the town adopted the program, called it an example of small town innovation.
"Every town can't do the same thing we did," he noted. "But everyone can find something that's unique about their town. Small towns don't have to die."