Free land offer mostly fails in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, AK The town of Anderson -- population 300 -- is foreclosing on 18 of 26 large, spruce-covered lots it gave away because the new owners did not develop them as required.

"It sounded good in theory. Oh yeah, free land. But the reality is it costs a lot of money to build up here," said Eric Warner, one of the few to build a home, on Monday.

Officials blame a lack of local jobs and a bad economy for the failed homesteading experiment devised by high school students to boost the dwindling population of the town, 75 miles from the regional hub of Fairbanks. Nobody believes anyone was scared off by reports of the occasional day of 60-below weather.

The March 2007 giveaway prompted thousands of calls from around the world. By the day of the land grab, 44 waited in line. Many camped out in weather as cold as minus-25 for a shot at the 1.3-acre lots, which went to the first 26 people to claim them and put down nonrefundable $500 deposits.

Under the rules, winning applicants were supposed to build a house measuring at least 1,000 square feet within two years.

Many of the winners, however, never came back or communicated with the town, even to respond to formal letters asking what their intentions were, City Clerk Darla Coghill said. She still hears daily from others interested in getting some free land, but she tells them Anderson is out of that business these days.

She thinks most outsiders couldn't cut living in a place where the nearest gasoline and groceries are a 20-mile drive away.

"It's like a TV show," she said. "It all looks like fun and games until you get here."

In hindsight, the city should have conducted some kind of screening process on the would-be land owners, Anderson Mayor Keith Fetzer said. "I think it was about the free. Everyone sees free," he said. "Even though it's free, it's not really free. You've got to have the resources to develop it."

Warner had just moved from Boise, Idaho, to Anderson to take a job at nearby Clear Air Force Station when the land deal was announced. A married father of four, Warner rushed to stake a claim for a lot and was first in line.

The family is now living in their nearly completed 3,300-square foot home, along with four dogs, an iguana, a tortoise and four fish, said Warner, a technical sergeant with the Alaska Air National Guard.

Two other houses have gone up, but one of the homeowners is leaving because his home did not meet his bank's building standards, according to Fetzer.

Three other lots have received construction schedule extensions and one has been returned to the town. A bed and breakfast is being built on another lot and may be expanded over more space, according to Fetzer, so he estimates the giveaway could result in a 25 percent success rate.

"It wasn't a complete failure," he said. "It was a learning process."

The project could have worked out better under the original vision of students, said Daryl Frisbie, a former local high school teacher whose social studies class developed the idea. Instead, everyone focused on the free part, causing locals to become envious because they missed out on a lot and dividing the community, Frisbie said.

"Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the student perspective and original intent was lost and that was lost when the word free came in," Frisbie said.

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