For the past 15 years, two billboards have stood on the city limits of Flagler, Colorado, waiting to greet those who may be looking for a place to land. From 10 feet in the air overlooking I-70 and Flagler, the two signs deliver their proclamatory message: “Got Land! Got Water! All we need is you.”
Flagler is a rarity in the West — it’s offering land without a price tag to someone willing to stake a future in the town.
Situated in eastern Colorado, this small town is an agricultural community — akin more to the tilled-and-planted Midwest than the Rocky Mountain reveries most envision upon hearing “Colorado.” The ground is flat, and most houses are separated by a mile or two of grain fields and grassland for cattle. The two main employers in town are a grain co-op and bird seed factory. It’s the kind of small, blue-collar town that residents are quick to compare to Mayberry — the idyllic and sleepy setting of “The Andy Griffith Show” in the 1960s. A trip to the post office turns into an impromptu social event, and shopkeepers know their customers by name. The business district spans one block, and none of the stucco buildings stand higher than two stories tall (with the exception of the grain silos). In Flagler, you don’t only know everyone in town — you also know who everyone’s grandparents were.
The people of Flagler are proud of how much it resembles towns of a bygone era, but they also know the peril of staying the same. That’s why the town has 480 acres of free land available for business development. The plot sits right next to town — within city limits — and it’s empty save for the three wells that led Flagler to purchase the land and a two-track gravel bed railroad spur running along the south side.
So far, Flagler hasn’t found the right taker. Town Clerk Doris King says a few deals have almost come through, but have fallen apart for one reason or another. Tom Bredehoft, Flagler’s mayor, has taken the disappointments in stride. “We’re just waiting for, or hoping and wishing for any type of industry to come in and and put their business on the land.”
Small towns across the country have struggled to maintain their populations as jobs — and the next generation — have migrated to cities. “If you weren’t born into a farming family, then there’s just not much else around here,” King says. But Bredehoft and King think the town has a lot to offer, for the right person or business. Unlike the booming parts of western Colorado, life is slower in Flagler, there’s not many tourists, and the sense of community is strong. “The thing I like about it is I could make five phone calls and tell ’em that you were here down on your luck. And I could have meals or gas money, something, to help you within an hour,” King says. “That’s just the type of people they are here.”
Kit Carson County, where Flagler is located, was one of 11 rural counties in the state that saw a decline in population since 2010 — it lost 14% of its people during the same time period. But despite the losses, Bredehoft still believes the town is doing something right. In 2012, a Subway shop opened on High Street, right next to the liquor store and across the way from the Loaf ’N Jug gas station. To Bredehoft, having a franchise store open up was a sign of a boon to come. “That’s been a big thing. ... Once you get certain known businesses in, other ones come in.”
Bredehoft believes in bringing in business — literally. He opened the I-70 Diner in 2007 after finding the building on a dirt lot in Fargo, North Dakota. He had it trucked down on six different semis. And with the help of two cranes, all six pieces were put back together in a day. Today, the diner is easy to spot thanks to the bright pink Cadillac spinning on a 30-foot pole, the glinting chrome doors and the smell of cooking chili (the diner’s specialty.)
Flagler’s residents’ willingness to reincarnate has kept the town from disappearing. “Our Main Street’s never looked better in the 49 years that I’ve lived here,” Bredehoft says. “We just want to keep everything we have.”
And it seems that, just maybe, they will. Since the pandemic hit, more people from Denver and the surrounding suburbs have moved into town, according to Tami Witt, a realtor and member of city council. “I’m just really proud of what our little town is doing. And our efforts are starting to pay off,” she says.
But — at least for now — the lot the town is offering for free looks a lot like most of the land in Flagler: flat and full of grain.