'A lot of interest' as SD communities trying free residential lot giveaways to boost population, workforce

Pukwana, Oldham aim to reduce housing crunch

The Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation is giving away free residential lots in Pukwana to qualified applicants in an effort to boost the local population and economy.
Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic

PUKWANA, S.D. — Looking to build a house in a rural South Dakota community? Then Pukwana and Oldham have a deal for you.

The two communities are giving away free residential lots to anyone interested in putting up a home or housing unit as a way to boost the population of the small towns as well to strengthen the workforce for area businesses looking for employees.

“We don’t see a lot of growth in our small communities. To have a house or duplex can be significant for small towns,” said Mike Lauritsen, director for the Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation. “Sometimes that takes unique ideas.”

As part of that unique idea, interested individuals can apply for a free housing lot in the town of roughly 250 people. The lots are located in the middle of town and include all the necessary infrastructure that homeowners are looking for, including water, sewer, and electrical utilities. The lots are available to eligible applicants, who must be 18, be a legal resident of the United States and that they agree to build a home on the lot within a set time period.

The city of Pukwana transferred ownership of the lots to the Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation so that it could facilitate the project.


“We want to see some development here, and (the city of Pukwana) voted to transfer the lots to the LFCEDC as a project that would suit the community. That would be housing. Like a lot of communities across the United States, we’re not unique in that we’re in a housing crunch,” Lauritsen said.

The stipulations that come with the free lot include the requirement that the new owner builds a home on the site within a year and that that home be at least 1,500 square feet. The new owners can build to live in or sell, according to the Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation.

But for the most part, the point is to encourage growth within the greater community.

The Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation is giving away free residential lots in Pukwana to qualified applicants in an effort to boost the local population and economy.
Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic

“We didn’t put a lot of parameters on what had to be built there. We’re leaving it fairly open,” Lauritsen.

Pukwana sits about seven miles from Chamberlain, which has a strong need for more employees. Lauritsen took a poll of the three largest employers in Chamberlain — St. Joseph’s Indian School, the Chamberlain School District and the Sanford Chamberlain Medical Center — and found that all three have good-paying positions open if they can find the employees.

Giving homeowners a way into the community without the burden of purchasing a lot on which to build a home can help address that type of need.

“I polled our three largest employers, and between those three were 40 job openings. These large employers offer jobs that pay $30,000 to $120,000, and they tend to be closer to the $40,000 range, and they offer full benefits. That’s something that people can move to this area and take a job and purchase a home and start a life in our area,” Lauritsen said. “We have the jobs, and we’re working on the housing.”

The development corporation has four available lots and has received strong interest since the beginning of the year. The lots measure 50 feet by 124 feet but the development corporation is willing to combine lots if that makes it more appealing to a prospective owner.


Lauritsen said the development corporation has received about 50 inquiries about the properties from places as close as Sioux Falls and as far away as California, and one has submitted an official proposal. That’s an encouraging sign that the unique offer has potential to be a success.

“We’ve got one submitted. That’s a win,” Lauritsen said.

Larry McManus, mayor of Pukwana, said interested parties may very well find the lifestyle they're looking for in the small community.

"We are excited to offer this opportunity to anyone who is looking for a new start in life. Our town has so much to offer in terms of community, natural beauty and a relaxed pace of life. We hope that by offering free housing lots, we can attract new residents who will help to grow and revitalize our town," McManus said.

A sign is located in Oldham showing passers-by that the town is giving away free house lots.
Luke Hagen / Republic

In Oldham, about 25 miles from Madison and 30 miles from Brookings, the Oldham Area Improvement Corporation has been working on a similar plan in the town of about 133 residents. The corporation acquired several abandoned lots for taxes through the county, and one by donation from a former resident, and has set about trying to draw interested party to the area.

“They tore down some old houses on abandoned properties in town here, so we set it up and said we’d give away the lots to anyone who built a house on them,” said Roger Eide, with the Oldham Area Improvement Corporation.

The Oldham lots come in a variety of sizes, and stipulations for acquiring a lot include having a home built on the site within 18 months and that the home be a minimum of 900 square feet. Homes must be built to meet modern building codes, as well.
Like the effort in Pukwana, the lot giveaway in Oldham is hoped to strengthen both the population and the area workforce. The town has already seen interest in its existing homes grow from potential buyers in Brookings, Volga and Madison. A renewable jet fuel plant planned in Lake Preston is expected to bring more jobs to the area, and with it the need for more housing.

“It’s mainly to build the community. We really don’t have a lot of local jobs, although Lake Preston has that new biofuels plant that is going in up there, and in the next couple of years there will be 70, 80 maybe up to 100 permanent employees once it’s up and running. What we’re seeing now is quite a few from Brookings and Volga looking a little further out in the smaller towns where the houses are more affordable.”


The project in Oldham has been up and running for about 10 years, and interest has been relatively strong from the get-go. Eide said he receives about a dozen inquiries a year about the lots from curious parties. The first house was just erected two years ago on one of the giveaway lots, and there are another four available. Like in Pukwana, the lots come with the necessary infrastructure, including natural gas, fiber optic internet, water, sewer and garbage service.

And the interest goes beyond the Oldham region. Parties from outside the state who have an interest in moving to South Dakota are often some of the most curious callers.

“We have had some people from Texas and Nevada. We’re getting a lot of interest,” Eide said.

Giving away the lots is an ongoing process that seeks to find the right match between the community and the potential owner, Eide said. The corporation is hoping to give a shot in the arm to the community population to grow the town and to support both local and regional businesses in need of workers.

As the average age of rural South Dakota towns increases and the state suffers from the flight of young people to more urban areas, the need to transfuse the population with young blood is important.

“It’s a matter of survival for the time, really. In order to support the few businesses we have left, we need to have people here. We’re totally almost a bedroom community and retirement community. Most of the residents — virtually all of them in the community are retired,” Eide said. “(But) we are easily within commuting distance — 25 miles from Madison and 30 miles from Brookings. It’s pretty reasonable.”

Lauritsen said if the housing is there, the appeal of living in a small, generally rural South Dakota has its advantages. And people will respond to that opportunity if it presents itself to them.

“We did a housing study and it showed that we need more housing in our community surrounding the Chamberlain area. If we can get that we can help fill jobs for our current employers,” Lauritsen said.


The Lake Francis Case Economic Development Corporation is giving away free residential lots in Pukwana to qualified applicants in an effort to boost the local population and economy.
Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic

Lauritsen cited a couple who had moved to Chamberlain to take advantage of a similar offer through the Smoky Groves development on the south side of the city. That couple took advantage and obtained a lot, built a home, took jobs in the community and even started a family.

That’s the kind of growth Lauritsen wants to see in the area.

“A teacher and a young police officer have a home that will be delivered in December. We were able to get a new school teacher into our system and a new police officer. And now they had a baby, so the community is growing,” Lauritsen said.

There is appeal to living in places like Pukwana and Oldham, Lauritsen said. Chamberlain boasts world-class fishing and recreational opportunities, and the low-population, relatively low-crime environment in Oldham is a big selling point that could draw in young families and others looking for low-cost housing options.

Providing those options can open up the joys of living in rural South Dakota to new residents, as well as strengthen the area economy for the all-important employers that need workers. If the housing issue can be alleviated, people will see the appeal of living in places like Oldham or Pukwana and consider making it their home.

“Small town South Dakota — it's like a Hallmark movie. Everybody still waves at each other. My daughter in Chamberlain, her first-grade teacher sits behind her in church,” Lauritsen said. “You get to know everybody. You still have a real sense of community. I think that's important to people.”

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Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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