SORREL DOWNER

Journalist, film producer, and media consultant, mixing it up for TV, online, newspapers and magazines. I cover travel & tourism, lifestyle, and design. Mainly. This is the HQ for previous work, and an introduction to current projects. I work all over the world and live on a farm in Cadiz which I write about at www.somewheresville.org.

Town to Call My Own

“You wouldn’t believe how many people want to buy a town” says Rudy Nielson, who has bought and sold a few. “Mainly to say they own one”. With towns, mountain villages and medieval hamlets on the market for half the price of a flat in Kensington, this is an option if you’re flexible about location and looking for more acreage to the pound. Its not usually the savvy investor though who screeches to a halt by abandoned settlement with a for sale sign creaking in the wind, but romantics and visionaries. Buying a town is about buying a dream and the freedom to play, to have things just so, to be an altruist one day, a small-scale despot the next. The buildings are just a bonus.

Nielson’s company Niho Land & Cattle based in British Columbia buys towns from mining companies, usually breaks them down into lots, and sells them to people looking for a place to park a mobile home for hunting, fishing weekends. Sometimes he brokers them whole, like Kitsault, a town of 100 houses, 200 or so apartments, school, clinic, shopping centre and recreation club that was once home to several thousand people, located 500 miles north of Vancouver on 130 hectares of waterfront property on a fjord near the Alaska Panhandle – a veritable ‘turnkey community’.

Amax of Canada built Kitsault in the early 1980s to support a nearby molybdenum mine, but the mine closed down after two years, and everyone – bar the caretaker – left. “It’s a long ways in there by road” says Nielson, “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. When you walk through town and see everything abandoned – a bicycle in the driveway, 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 Phelps-Dodge which had taken it over), site unseen, for £3 million to Krishnan Suthanthiran. An astute businessman, Suthanthiran 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.” As things currently stand, it will be “a scientific and entertainment centre with free room and board for 300-400 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, Neilson 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.”

The boom-bust nature of gold, silver and copper mining left towns stranded around the world without a raison d’etre, but towns built around sawmills, trading posts, forts, distilleries and cold war military installations have also fallen on hard times, and many medieval Italian fortified villages with streets too narrow for cars, rudimentary plumbing and buildings damaged by seismic rumblings, have been abandoned in favour of new towns nearby. Perverse as we are, the tangible signs of history and heritage, obvious antiquity (once skillfully restored) and the extreme isolation that proved the kiss of death for village life are now precisely the sort of thing we want in a second home, retirement idyll, holiday fractional. Owning a town which 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.

There is high demand for Italian hamlets and, across Tuscany, Campania and Umbria, 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 is retained by the Vatican State).

Nerina Keeley bought one in Tuscany in 2002 for €1.4m. “It was a romantic gesture in a way” she says of her purchase, Chiena, “it was the way she was positioned on a little hill, the dusty path, the overgrown bushes, desolate for ten years…”  The buildings had no foundations and missing roofs, the vineyards needed replanting and, capable of swallowing the 30 to 40 people employed to restore it, the borgo was on the large side for a family. However, 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 part of an Italian community in a hassle-free home from home. By spotting the growing demand for second homes overseas that are affordable, cultural and upscale, Keeley’s impulse buy looks set to pay dividends.

This formula is fuelling a brisk trade in towns throughout Italy and more recently, the rugged, if dour, northern regions of Spain where the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica recently totted up at least 1500 abandoned towns, villages and hamlets in Galicia and Asturias alone. While the British are still buying condos off plan in Marbella, the Germans, Swedes and Belgians have been snapping up mountainous multi-property sites, restoring them into halcyon 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) and, ostensibly because  “the Bulgarian name is difficult to pronounce”, name after himself.

Private towns are indelibly stamped with the personality of their maverick founders, nowhere more so than in the ghost towns of North America where even the names reveal grandiose dreams – the remote outpost in Ohio, named Rome by Almon Price a furniture maker with a love of Ancient Roman history, and weary resignation like in Tombstone, Scuffletown, Lost Springs and Achilles, a sentiment which proved well-founded as re-routed roads and railroads left pioneer towns cut off like oxbow lakes.

Some founders, given a blank canvas, were inspired town planners. Mrs William Dodge, given a free hand, $1m and the services of New York architect Bertram Goodhue to create ‘the most perfect company town’ for the Phelps-Dodge copper mine in 1915, produced Tyrone, a Mediterranean-style oasis of palatial rococo villas for 7000 people in the New Mexico desert (unfortunately the mine closed after six years, the people left and only the Justice Court and Union Chapel remain). And minimalist artist Donald Judd who came across the largely abandoned fort town of Marfa, Texas in 1971, 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.

But for every town buyer with a specific plan, there is another for whom the space to kick back and do nothing in particular is the big attraction. Alexander Bardorff, who with two fellow Germans pooled their resources and paid $20,000 for the Texas town of Lobo (a gas station, general store, motel and half a dozen ruins) in 2001, told magazine, DW-World, that their burgeoning community has become “a place for people — be they writers, artists, musicians or … IT specialists — to hang out in the desert and do what they want.”  Fellow founder, artist Annette Gloser 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. Nice climate, if a little warm, and quiet although people have been riding in, trading rugs and jewelry 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. Which they don’t.”

There’s also ghost town Rockerville, South Dakota which 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, 24-hour restaurant, saloon, gas station, homes, general store as well as 10 full-time residents, but in the form this time of $249,000 lots. “I bought the property because I could. It’s just a great place for anyone with the romantic vision of owning a ghost town” says the vendor, adding tellingly “I wasn’t really looking to make money. “

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 center, like Esalen, Big Sur, didn’t quite happen, and returned to eBay last April. This time, despite mouthwatering advertising (”Imagine Owning Your Own Town and Zip Code!”), a starting bid of $1.75m  for 83 acres, cabins, houses, and commercial buildings (and this 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, where 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 – and not at all about 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 be an unrequited town owner. According to Rudy Neilson there are lots of properties as wild and fine and excessively large as Kitsault that might soon be on the market.

FIRST PUBLISHED: FINANCIAL TIMES, 2007. Copyright Financial Times / Sorrel Downer.

Freelance journalist, film producer, and media consultant, mixing it all up for TV, online, newspapers and magazines and clients. I work mainly in the areas of travel & tourism, lifestyle, and wildlife. This is the HQ for archive features, and an introduction to current projects. I have an ongoing blog at http://www.somewheresville.org

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