Wyoming Town Offers Cheap Land for New Blood

A sign at the border of Chugwater, Wyo.

A sign at the border of Chugwater, Wyo. Rural livestock outnumber people 10 to one in the surrounding county. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

In an effort to revitalize its struggling economy and attract new residents, rural Chugwater, Wyo., population 244, is selling empty lots in town for just $100. You have to build a house within a year and then live there for two years. But after that, the property is yours.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some parts of this country are experiencing a real estate boom but don't tell that to the residents of Chugwater, Wyoming. They're trying to attract new residents and so the town is selling empty lots for just $100. You have to build a house within one year and then live there for two years, but after that, the property is yours. NPR's Jeff Brady visited Chugwater to learn more about this 21st century homestead program.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Chugwater has 244 residents, and if rural living sounds appealing, town leaders would like to add you. It is rural. Livestock outnumber people 10 to one in the surrounding county. And the freeway exits outside town have cattle guards. You may have questions about the town's name, though. Chugwater historian Jean Cerquoz says there's a prevailing theory. Local native Americans used to herd buffalo off cliffs to kill them.

Ms. JEAN CERQUOZ (Historian): And this was supposed to have taken place off some of the bluffs along the creek where the buffalo fell into the creek or hit the ground with a chugging sound.

BRADY: Locals tend to relay this story with a wry smile. Growth, on the other hand, is taken very seriously in Chugwater and not because they're worried about sprawl. The town has seen better days. Up until the 1960s, there were a couple of grocery stores, five gas stations and a lot more traffic. Today, many of the buildings are boarded up. Some look like they're on the verge of falling down. Mayor Krista West is trying to breathe some new life into Chugwater. Stop by town hall and she might be willing to show you a $100 lot personally.

Mayor KRISTA WEST (Chugwater, Wyoming): OK. Well, we're on Second and Clay and we're going to be walking past our local bank here.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

BRADY: The dogs are not guarding the bank, just a brick house next door. The barking scares a wild rabbit and it sprints toward Third Street which happens to be our destination. The lot is in a great location, right next to the city park, has water and sewer hookups and it's about twice the size of most city lots. Walking back towards the town hall, Mayor West says just about everything Chugwater has to offer is close by.

Mayor WEST: Well, you're going to have walking distance to the school. You'll have walking distance to the post office, to our local library, to the community center, to the post office, to the town hall.

(Soundbite of a dog barking)

BRADY: You know, it just occurred to me we're walking in the middle of the street.

Mayor WEST: We walk in the middle of the street a lot of times.

BRADY: West says the slow pace of life in Chugwater is appealing; that and just about everyone is friendly. Even strangers get away from passing cars. At the Chugwater soda fountain, a half-dozen people are having lunch. Jim Bristow works on a ranch about 40 miles south of town. He sports a graying beard, a dusty black cowboy hat and a quick opinion about the town virtually giving away land.

Mr. JIM BRISTOW (Chugwater Resident): I think it's stupid. If we're going to bring more people in here, what are we going to have them do when they get here?

BRADY: Bristow says there's no work in Chugwater and the town should help its struggling businesses first. A few others agree, but most hope the plan will bring new families to Chugwater and that new businesses will follow. They'd also like to see more kids in the school. Currently, there's not even enough to put a football team together. Chugwater is one among several rural Western towns trying to attract new residents with cheap or even free land. John Allen directs the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University. He says big cities do this type of thing all the time, offering tax incentives to lure manufacturers and big box stores.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Utah State University): So it amuses me a bit when I see rural people being--a finger pointed at them saying, `Oh, it must be your last gasp if you're using incentives.'

BRADY: Allen predicts Chugwater may just succeed in bringing new blood into the community, and in the process, he says, that also will bring new ideas that could help the town thrive. Lawrence Solomon, on the other hand, says maybe it's time for places like Chugwater to become ghost towns. Solomon heads the Urban Renaissance Institute in Toronto. He says rural life has long been romanticized even though often it isn't environmentally or economically viable.

Mr. LAWRENCE SOLOMON (Urban Renaissance Institute): People who live in rural areas consume much more energy per capita. They consume more water per capita. Most of the farming that occurs in, for example, prairie lands wouldn't occur without the great subsidies that society provides.

BRADY: Solomon says a lot of people have been voting with their feet when it comes to rural areas, and they've left for more opportunities in cities. He says it's time to recognize that not all rural communities will survive or even should.

Folks in Chugwater argue they have something worth preserving, a different way of life and a strong tie to the land and tradition, but it seems even cheap land isn't enough to attract new residents. The town has eight lots available. A May 2nd deadline passed without enough applications, so the town has extended the deadline to the 15th.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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