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My Kind of Town

Sorrell Downer,Financial Times of London   September 22, 2006

"You wouldn’t believe how many people want to buy a town.” When Rudy Nielson says this, you can’t help but doubt him. Given the money one must need to acquire a thriving settlement and the hassles that would certainly come with rescuing a declining one, town ownership seems like an option for only the most foolhardy investor.

But for romantics and visionaries – those people who see dusty streets, abandoned houses and a for sale sign and think “opportunity” – it makes perfect sense. There are dozens of mountain villages, medieval hamlets and mining communities on the market around the world, many for less than half the price of a flat in London or New York. And buying one is about buying a dream; having the freedom to play, to have things just so, to be an altruist one day and a small-scale despot the next. The buildings are just a bonus.

Nielson knows this because he has bought and sold a few towns. His company, Niho Land & Cattle, based in British Columbia, acquires them from mining companies, usually breaks them down into lots and then sells them to people looking for a place to park a mobile home for hunting and fishing weekends. But sometimes he brokers them whole. That was the case with Kitsault, a town 500 miles north of Vancouver on 130 hectares of waterfront by a fjord near the Alaska panhandle.

Amax of Canada built Kitsault in the early 1980s to support a nearby molybdenum mine and the town was once home to several thousand people. With 100 houses, 200 or so apartments, a school, a clinic, a shopping centre and a recreation club, it was a veritable “turnkey community”. But when the mine closed down after two years, every¬one bar the caretaker left.

“It’s a long ways in there by road and people didn’t have the money to get moving trucks. But they had pickups, so they loaded them up and left what didn’t fit,” Nielson says. “You walk through town and see everything abandoned – a bicycle in the driveway, an old brown TV set, yellow shag rugs, Formica kitchens in the houses, beer mugs in the pub, books in the library, even water in the pool – like it’s 30 years back in time. It gives you a funny feeling. We clowned around, laid down on the operating table in the clinic, went past the stop sign at 80 miles an hour, had a great time. But, yup, it gives you a funny feeling, like someone from space pulled all the people out.”

Kitsault was sold last year (by mining company Phelps Dodge, which had taken it over), site unseen, for £3m to Krishnan Suthanthiran. Suthanthiran is the president of a Virginia-based ¬biomedical company and a seasoned property investor but he proved as susceptible as any to the romantic and wholly impractical idea of town ownership. He plans to create a utopia: “Absolutely. We all dream to be somewhere better. I am able to make it a reality,” he says.

As things currently stand, it will be “a scientific and entertainment centre with free room and board for 300 to 400 artists and scientists to develop their skills, with a Mahatma Gandhi film and music and TV festival May to September aimed at promoting non-violent entertainment.”

The good thing about owning a town, Nielson says, is that “you’re the mayor, the fire chief, a whole bunch of things”. Suthanthiran will take the role of beneficent king: “The town,” he says, “will be a platform for me to communicate my dreams and views.”

Thanks to the boom-bust nature of gold, silver and copper mining, there are many towns like Kitsault stranded around the world without a raison d’être. Settlements built around sawmills, trading posts, forts, distilleries and cold war military installations have suffered the same fate, as have many medieval Italian fortified villages with streets too narrow for cars, rudimentary plumbing and buildings damaged by seismic rumblings.

Perverse as we are, the tangible signs of history and heritage, obvious antiquity (once skilfully restored) and the extreme isolation that sent residents of these places running for more modern locales are now precisely the things we want in sites for second homes, retirement idylls, holiday fractionals. Owning a town that can be populated with friends, family and paying guests is a satisfactory compromise for people who want to be away from it all in theory but dread the thought of absolute isolation in practice.

Italian hamlets are in high demand and, across Tuscany, Campania and Umbria, there is a steady supply. A quick browse online turns up several, including Borgo Rofino, a fortified Tuscan village for €1.5m, a town near Florence for €3m, and a knot of 30 houses in Orvieto marketed for its potential as a tourist development for €4.5m (although the church will be retained by the Vatican State). Acquaviva, a village of 15 crumbling stone houses and cottages in a mountain valley on the border between Tuscany and Le Marche, is also on the market. Named for its prized sulphur water spring and nearby bathing pools, it was abandoned in the 1960s. Estate agent Alice Pudda at Italian Propery Sales & Restoration now hopes to sell it for about €1.2m to a spa developer or a few friends interested in building “an eco-paradise”.

When Nerina Keeley bought Chiena in Tuscany in 2002 for €1.4m, she had no elaborate plan. “It was a romantic gesture in a way,” she says. “It was the way she was positioned on a little hill, the dusty path, the overgrown bushes, desolate for 10 years . . . ”

The buildings had no foundations and missing roofs, the vineyards needed replanting and the borgo (village), capable of swallowing the 30 to 40 people employed to restore it, was on the large side for a family. But after four years of meticulous work and pondering her options, Keeley is about to launch Farmshare, a sort of timeshare with grapes and olive oil, enabling people to buy a stake in Chiena for a finite period and be a part-time member of an Italian community. By spotting the growing demand for second homes overseas that are affordable, cultural and upscale, she looks likely to have turned her impulse buy into an investment that will pay dividends.

Similar schemes are fuelling a brisk trade in towns throughout Italy and more recently, the rugged, if dour, northern regions of Spain, where the Instituto Nacional de Estadística recently pinpointed at least 1,500 abandoned towns, villages and hamlets in Galicia and Asturias alone. While the British are still buying condominiums off plan in Marbella, the Germans, Swedes and Belgians have been snapping up mountainous multi-property sites and restoring them to create retreats and alternative communities of like-minded escapists.

Investors looking for bargains are also scouring Bulgaria. A 31-year-old tycoon, Scott Alexander, was reported to have bought a coastal town for £3m, which he plans to develop as a holiday resort for the British market (adding condos and a casino). Because “the Bulgarian name is difficult to pronounce”, he also plans to name it after himself.

Private towns are indelibly stamped with the personalities of their maverick founders, nowhere more so than in North America. The remote outpost of Rome, Ohio, was named by Almon Price, a furniture maker and big fan of ancient Roman history, while Tyrone, New Mexico, was a Mediterranean-style oasis of palatial rococo villas for 7,000 people in the desert. It was planned in 1915 by Mrs William Dodge, who was given $1m and the services of New York architect Bertram Goodhue by Phelps Dodge to create “the most perfect company town”.

Both of these are now deserted, awaiting new owners. (Pioneers who named their settlements with more weary resignation – Tombstone, Scuffletown, Lost Springs and Achilles – seemed to have more insight into their fates.) But others like them have been rescued.

Aside from Kitsault, there is Marfa, Texas, a largely abandoned fort town that minimalist artist Donald Judd came across in 1971. He gradually bought and restored most of it, creating a concept town, a much-visited work of art in itself, now maintained by the Judd and Chinati foundations. Another town, Playas, New Mexico, previously owned by Phelps Dodge, was bought by the US government and is now used as an anti-terrorist training site for the Department of Homeland Security. The remaining residents are pleased because they can now get “extra” work playing hostages.

Lobo, Texas (a gas station, general store, motel and half a dozen ruins) was purchased by three Germans for $20,000 in 2001 because they wanted space to kick back. Co-owner Alexander Bardorff told magazine DW-World that the burgeoning community is now “a place for people – be they writers, artists, musicians or . . . IT specialists – to hang out in the desert and do what they want”. Artist Annette Gloser, another owner, says she can now be creative without constraint: “I can build and make what I want. In Frankfurt, I can’t even change something in my garden without getting permission.”

Those in search of similar freedom might consider Counselor, New Mexico, comprising church, school, houses, a trading post stocked with Winchester rifles and farm implements, and a few hundred acres, currently on the market for $950,000. It has a nice climate, if a little warm, and is quiet, although people have been riding in to trade rugs and jewellery for flour and beans from time to time since 1930. Since proprietor Turk McDonald died “the family doesn’t have the time to hassle with the town”, says her son, Frank. Estate agent Toby Atencio put it on Ebay. But “I got mostly dreamers looking to fulfill some weird dream. People from California wanted to do a movie production studio, one guy wanted to do a dude ranch, another an all-star basketball camp. Great ideas if you have any money for it. [But] they don’t.”

There’s also Rockerville, South Dakota, a town that was bought and turned into a pastiche of itself complete with saloon façades before being abandoned a second time, back on the market for $1.1m. And Modena, Utah, which boasts a hotel, a 24-hour restaurant, a saloon, a gas station, homes, a general store and 10 full-time residents; it is being sold in $249,000 lots. “I bought the property because I could,” says the vendor. “I wasn’t really looking to make money. It’s just a great place for anyone with the romantic vision of owning a ghost town.”

Clearly there’s a fine line between desirable and albatross when it comes to buying a derelict town. After Bridgeville, the first to be sold on Ebay, went for a winning stake of $1.77m, the new owner drove 260 miles north of San Francisco, took one look at his shacks and backed out of the sale. It was picked up for $700,000 by a financial advisor whose plans for an educational institute, vacation spot and retreat centre, like Esalen, Big Sur, didn’t quite happen. It was returned to Ebay last April. This time – in spite of mouthwatering advertising (“Imagine Owning Your Own Town and Zip Code!”) and a starting price of $1.75m for 83 acres, cabins, houses, and commercial buildings (in the same state as Santa Barbara, where $1m is the median price for a house) – it failed to find an online buyer.

Shopping for towns is a gut instinct sort of business involving arbitrary, or at least subjective, criteria; decisions seem to be governed principally by the heart. So many owners – including ordinarily reserved property moguls – talk enthusiastically, sentimentally and at length about them in love affair terms (“It was love at first sight”, “The town was so beautiful”, “It had been lonely, neglected”) without ever mentioning returns on capital investment.

If you value space and romanticism over convenient location, have deep pockets and big dreams and possibly a helicopter, you too might consider becoming a town owner. According to Rudy Nielson there are lots of properties as wild and fine and excessively large as Kitsault that might soon be up for sale.