Argus Leader: Laurent eyes small towns

Note: We are looking at Spencer, however, we are also looking at other locations including one in other state.

Sign language community shifts plans to redevelopment


The co-founders of a proposed McCook County town for sign language users have opted to discard their plan for a new town and look at redeveloping a small one.

Spencer town officials confirmed Friday that M.E. Barwacz and her son-in-law, Marvin Miller, have asked about lots in Spencer in the past few weeks.

Mayor Donna Ruden estimated as many as 25 lots are available in town, owned by residents since before the 1998 tornado that ravaged Spencer.

“They’ve made inquiries into different parcels and what we’ve got available here,” Ruden said.

Miller and Barwacz shared their new vision with investors and supporters in a newsletter via e-mail Thursday.

“Instead of building a new town from scratch, we are considering buying into an existing town and build there,” they wrote in the newsletter. “We have identified a small town within a reasonable driving distance to a large city with Wal-Mart, Menards, fast food and casual restaurants, movie theater, hospital and many more.”

They also said they were looking at one or two other possible sites.

City officials in Montrose, Bridgewater and Alexandria said no one associated with Laurent has made inquiries there.

Miller and Barwacz added that their Laurent town plan would be shelved to focus on small town redevelopment and demonstrate the viability of a signing community. They might revisit their initial plans with growth and time and work with the county.

Attempts to reach Miller for comment Friday were unsuccessful. Barwacz declined to speak to the Argus Leader on Friday night.

Barwacz and Miller said a small town is ripe for development because of population decline.

“What’s bad for the agricultural community is not necessarily bad for our signing community,” they said. “Our needs and economic base will be different than theirs.”

Spencer had 310 residents and 180 homes and businesses when the tornado roared through town on May 30, 1998, Ruden said. As of July 1, 2005, it had 157 people.

Five years ago, the town began offering free lots after residents who moved or grew tired of mowing their lot deeded their land to the city. Three houses have been built in the past three years.

John Knox, McCook County zoning administrator, said if free lots were available in Spencer, that would benefit both the town and Laurent officials.

“If people from Laurent need a place to live, it would eliminate objections to Laurent being close to Salem,” he said. “To me, it sounds like it would be a good situation for everybody.”

Investors and supporters learned earlier this month from Miller in his blog that The Laurent Co. was in debt. He revealed that it owed $300,000 to Nederveld Associates, the Michigan firm that created the town plan at the southeast corner of the Salem interchange along Interstate 90.

Barwacz invested $200,000 of her funds into the project, Miller said. He also invested, and friends and family lent them money, expecting to be paid when the duo received major financing.

One creditor - deaf architect John Dickinson of Winter and Co. in Boulder, Colo. - agreed to waive his $16,000 in fees, Miller said.

Debt forced The Laurent Co. to cease. Both co-founders are focusing their efforts with The Laurent Institute, a nonprofit organization created Dec. 9, 2003, according to its 2003 tax return.

Miller, the institute’s executive director, said this week that Hawk Relay - a South Dakota video relay service - gave it an annual $150,000 sponsorship that could be extended for three years.

Private donors have contributed more than $1,000 so far.

County Commissioner Bill Smith of Montrose recalled the long process the county board endured to craft and enact special zoning to accommodate the new town. But he is satisfied that those zoning regulations for planned development districts are in place.

Smith admitted that he thought the project was dead when Laurent officials lost their primary backing and closed their Salem office last month.

“You got to have jobs for people and things like that,” he said. “If you’re going to be that ambitious, they should have had the money, and they didn’t.”

When asked whether any part of the Laurent project still would be welcome in the county, Smith replied, “I think they’ve lost a lot of credibility.”

While Ruden said housing growth would bring tax revenue to Spencer and help revitalize it, she questioned whether the town could support more businesses, given rural decline. Many residents commute to jobs in Mitchell and buy supplies there, she said.

“We’d love to see our town the way it was before the tornado,” Ruden said. “In this day and age, things aren’t all that lucrative. If you have money to build houses, you have to have jobs to pay taxes.”

Reach Melanie Brandert at 977-3926.

Published: October 28. 2006 2:55AM

12 Responses to “Argus Leader: Laurent eyes small towns”

  1. Richard Roehm Says:

    Dont forget Spencer had a major tornado outbreak back then. If those kinds of winds went through Spencer before, then it will go through it again. Pick another place.

  2. Andres Rodriguez Says:

    Hi My name Andres Rodriguez myself deaf person from central Florida I was wonder there the laurent of town in south dakota alot of deaf people live there and sign town ? everything trying all deaf grow population in town like taste Gally be sure ? I would love to hang around deaf people become own hometown in town that would be wonderful if I want move there how about job have any open avaiable for me ? maybe need bring deaf people live there grow more that would easier pay tax keep stay town become strong deaf town largest everything what they can do anything sucess. please email back let me know thank you
    Andres Rodriguez

  3. marvmiller Says:


    The tornado — a single tornado — that hit Spencer in 1998 was the largest, most violent in South Dakota history. The chances of same intensity and size tornado hitting a small spot again in 550 square mile county of McCook is tiny.

    This town has excellent infrastructure and availability, but we are not ready to commit yet. We are checking other sites out as well. Spencer is the leading contender. We are truly excited, and I believe you will feel the same when you see the town.

  4. Eric Says:

    Thanks for the updates. Do you have any picture of how Spencer looks like? Google’s search engine didn’t find many pictures of Spencer beside the 1998 infamous tornado.


  5. marvmiller Says:

    Go to and enter Spencer, SD. You will get a good satellite view of the town.

  6. Net0maN Says:

    found this article and thought u may be interested to read:

    its about small towns giving out free lands to attract residents.

    for more info about states:

    Kansas =

    Nebreska =

    North Dakota =

    u can find many more in search engines.

  7. Andy F Says:

    Good seeing you in VT and excellent presentation as usual though I didn’t get all of it.

    Keep up the good work - this can and will achieve success. Taking over a small town sounds more feasible at this stage.

  8. Rene Visco Says:

    Please broaden your search..It’s possible to take over a small town in the West.

  9. marvmiller Says:

    Sure, there are several small and dying towns in the West. However, we have a certain criteria that needs to be met. Here are some of them:

    1. Low state population (AK, WY, MT, ND, SD) & available land
    2. Low county population
    3. Near interstate highway (within 5 miles if possible)
    4. Near a big city with major airport service

    If you find any, please let us know. :-)

  10. Eric Says:

    I checked for your email address on the “Contact Us” site. There is no email address listed on the site. I wanted to share my findings w/ you about towns in Montana that may meet your certain criteria:

    1. Low state population:
    In 2005, Montana’s population was 935,670 with a low over all population density (average of fewer than 5 persons per square mile.) Their population was ranked 44th in 2004.

    2. Low county population with a big city and a major airport nearby:
    Currently there are 2 major international airports in Montata (Billings Logan International Airport and Missoula International Airport.)

    Billings is the largest city in Montana. There are 3 counties with less than 5,000 people by Billings - Golden Valley, Musselshell, and Treasure. Treasure is the only county with an interstate highway which is I-94.

    Missoula is the 2nd largest city in Montana. There are 2 counties with less than 5,000 people by Missoula - Mineral and Granite. Both counties have an interstate highway which is I-90.

    Living in Montana has benefits. Montana has a growing economy, plently of outdoor recreations, views of surrounding mountains, cultural events, safe neighborhoods, complete and quality health care, and quality education (they have universities in Billings and Missoula.) If you enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, fly fishing, rafting, kayaking, or snow skiing, then Montana is the right place for you.

    Hope the above information about Montana helps a bit. :-)

  11. Eric Says:

    I forgot to add a link showing the counties’ populations in Montana. Here it is:

  12. Observer Says:

    Someone mentioned that Dolton, SD could be another possible site for Laurent… have you considered?

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