Iowa town giving away free land to attract residents
By KEVIN HARDY
Apr. 14, 2018
MARNE, Iowa (AP) — Every single home matters in a community of 120 people.
Each house serves as a crucial piece of the local tax base, keeping the town from fading away.
That's why people like Marne Mayor Randy Baxter have surgically removed the town's dilapidated homes over the years.
That's why the city will give away residential lots for free to anyone willing to build a new home.
And that's why Baxter himself has refurbished older homes and plans to begin building spec homes at his own risk.
"I care about the town," he told the Des Moines Register . "It gets to a point where it takes so many households to keep the lights on."
The mayor is the city's largest property owner. He estimates he's owned about a quarter of the town's properties as he's bought and sold homes, lots and commercial buildings over the years.
While he may have played an outsize role in Marne's housing market, Baxter's efforts represent a wider trend across Iowa: rural community leaders, struggling with aging housing stocks and little to no new construction, are taking a more active role in housing development.
Many have realized that developers will never show up to rebuild their inventories of houses and apartments without a push from the local community.
"We face so many challenges ... if a town doesn't roll up their sleeves and do it themselves, it's not going to be good," said Andrew Wenthe, a former legislator and current mayor of Fayette. "We're going to see a lot of these small towns fade away."
Fayette officials are leading a charge to improve the town's aging housing stock and entice developers to build new homes. Wenthe, an administrator at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, said only about a quarter of the private school's employees live in town. Many commute because of a lack of local housing options.
"We face some stark realities in rural Iowa," he said. "But we're doing everything we can to make Fayette different."
Baxter, a native of Cass County, wanted to open a motorcycle shop in Atlantic, but he ran into road blocks with local planning and zoning officials.
He didn't have that problem in Marne, where the only business around was a lone insurance office.
"It was kind of surreal," said Baxter, who moved to the town in 1977. "Marne was in kind of a low spot."
He traded in his 1951 Packard for a commercial building and over the years has expanded his shop into a sprawling complex of showrooms and workshops. Along the way, other locals opened a machine shop, an auto body shop and a bar and restaurant in Marne.
Baxter Cycle is now one of the largest suppliers of British motorcycle parts in the nation. Employees repair and restore bikes. And the company sells vintage and new Triumph and Royal Enfield cycles to customers across the globe.
On a recent weekday morning, Baxter's team was preparing to ship a container to a longtime customer in France.
"Anyone that knows British motorcycles knows Marne, Iowa," said Baxter, who's 65.
Shortly after, a woman pulled her adventure bike right up to the showroom door.
"I drove 6,000 miles to get here," she tells employees. "You have a wonderful place here in the middle of nowhere."
Marne is so small that the list of residents fills only a page and a half in the local phone book. But Baxter firmly believes the community needs more housing.
Perched on top of a hill overlooking a scenic valley of farm fields is a quaint two-bedroom home he purchased. His contractors are just finishing up the rehab work.
A $30,000 renovation allowed the crew to knock down walls, install shiny subway tiles and a new HVAC system. The home is painted in modern neutral colors and blanketed with laminate wood floors.
"I think I'll get back what I put in it," Baxter said. "We'll get a family in here and it will be good for another 50 years."
With the unemployment rate remaining low, a new ethanol plant coming on board a few miles away and a lack of housing inventory, Baxter thinks now is as good a time as any to double down on a new housing initiative.
So he plans to start building spec homes with his own capital, confident that there's enough demand to sell them once they're built. Even completing one new home every two years would be huge for the tiny town, he said.
"We've gotten rid of all the houses here that are not livable," he said. "I think now's a good time to start thinking about building new houses. We think if we build it, someone will eventually live in it."
Aside from serving as mayor, Baxter leads Marne's housing committee, which has offered the free residential lots.
The program is pretty simple: The lots go free to anyone willing to build a home that's at least 1,200 square feet. No trailer homes are allowed, but modular homes are acceptable.
In the last decade, only one family has taken up the city's offer: a ranch home on a corner lot was built several years ago.
The limited response has not met initial expectations.
"It has not been that successful," said 79-year-old Alan Cranston. "Far, far short of it. But we've had a lot of calls on it. A lot of people are asking."
Cranston, a retiree, described Marne's current housing needs as "critical."
"What's available is not what people are looking for," he said.
Still, the town has made huge strides with repairing its housing stock by tearing down dilapidated homes and fixing up the repairable ones.
"You drive through a lot of small towns the size of Marne and there's no comparison," he said. "Now, you drive through Marne and you'll see a big difference. I don't think there's an abandoned house in town now. And I can't think of any that need to be torn down."
Cranston credits the mayor for much of that progress.
"He's been a big plus," he said. "I don't know where we would be without him, to tell you the truth."
Aside from financing the demolition of unkempt homes and the rehabilitation of older ones, Cranston said he often spots Baxter working on other people's properties around town. Not long ago, he saw him on his tractor leveling out a gravel road in need of repair.
"I don't know if the man sleeps," he said. "If you want to get something done in the community, your best chance is to ask the man that's the busiest."
Brian Depew, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs, said housing intervention efforts like those in Marne are increasingly important as rural communities across the nation increasingly struggle against a lack of quality housing.
Declining population and lower home values have caused many communities to go years without seeing new homes built.
"The important thing is it takes local leadership and it takes organized effort," he said. "The market alone is not going to fix it."
Depew has had to rethink his attitude on the issue. He previously viewed dwindling population as rural America's primary challenge.
"And if you have declining population, I thought you'd have excess housing stock. I thought if you could get jobs and population, the housing will kind of take care of itself," he said. "But I was wrong. It's kind of a paradox."
For years, many rural communities have collectively determined to invest in education, economic development and quality of life initiatives.
"For a lot of small towns, housing has become just as important," Depew said. "And we should try to think about it in similar ways and be willing to invest in it in similar ways."
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com