Attention waterfowl hunters who dream about moving closer to marshlands north and west. The goose capital of Minnesota will award you seven-tenths of an acre inside its city limits if you move there and build a house.
That's right: Zero down, zero interest and zero payments on a roomy 100-by-300-foot lot in Middle River, a town of 300 people set between Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and the state's well-known Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area. That's a combined 182 square miles of breeding grounds and habitat for ducks, geese, shorebirds, song birds, raptors, deer, bear, wild turkeys, grouse, wolves and more.
The incentives don't stop there. Under the civic growth program launched in 2018 and expanded last year, the welcome packet sponsored by this outdoors-minded community also includes a one-year membership to the local Sportsmen's Club, a free building permit, two free years of municipal water and sewer, free electric hookup, three months of free cable TV, a $100 gift certificate to the local tavern, and a free, 12-month subscription to The Honker, the community's newspaper.
"Housing lots are available!'' the city says on its website. "Don't just feel at home — make Middle River your home!''
Josh Smith, president of the Border Bank branch office in Middle River, said three of the first four free lots are taken. In the spring of last year, the City Council added four more lots, all located in the town's northeast corner. The free land is available based on annual income criteria such as $107,000 or less for a family of three or more. For a household of one or two people, the income eligibility line is $93,100 a year, or less.
Smith said the city's incentive program is designed to sustain itself by capturing the new property tax revenue and dedicating the money for the purchase of more lots.
"We're trying to grow the community,'' said Smith, who also serves as president of the Middle River Sportsmen's Club.
Smith and Middle River resident Jason Cervantes said more families are needed to keep the town's good things going. In 2018, the Greenbush-Middle River School Board delivered a blow to the community by voting to close the Middle River campus and bus all Middle River students to Greenbush. The decision still stings.
Based on U.S. Census data, the population in Middle River has collapsed by more than 50% since 1970. To rally back, city mothers and fathers continue to leverage the town's waterfowl hunting heritage by investing in the annual Middle River Goose Fest and reinventing the town's school building as an Airbnb lodging place for hunters, seasonal workers and others.
Racketmn.com, a news, arts and culture website, recently featured the schoolhouse makeover by noting that guest accommodations include the gym, library, cafeteria and playground. The layout was described as a "family-style hostel."
Smith said Middle River's biggest calling card, by far, remains the Goose Fest. The annual celebration is timed to coincide with opening weekend of the late-season goose harvest, drawing upward of 3,000 revelers and growing. There's an opening ceremony, parade, auto racing, live music, beer garden, live theater, craft sale, flea market, food trucks, kids' games and a goose weigh-in contest.
The town's signature gathering was recognized in 2017 as "Event of the Year" by state tourism officials at Explore Minnesota. The Fest is a symbol of Middle River's togetherness and civic pride. City leaders wish to cultivate those attributes by adding more families. In the town's favor, Smith said, is its location just 22 miles north of Thief River Falls, a resilient job center with employers like Arctic Cat and Digi-Key Electronics.
"It's a really great community to raise a family and I mean that,'' said Cervantes, a community volunteer who guides military veterans and area youth on hunting and fishing trips throughout the year. The nonprofit group he volunteers for is called Middle River Veterans Outdoors.
Cervantes understands Marshall County inside and out because of his full-time job as a deputy sheriff. In his opinion, Middle River ranks No. 1 in the county for livability.
"It's a very close-knit community … it's more personal here,'' the deputy said. "If there's a problem, the community comes together.''