HAZELTON, N.D. – A tiny North Dakota towns promise of cash and free land lured only one family from out of state. Now, Michael and Jeanette Tristani and their 12-year-old twins are trying to move from the town without a traffic light back to Miami.
Tired of crime, traffic, hurricanes and the high cost of living in Florida, the Tristanis moved four years ago to Hazelton, a dwindling town of about 240 that has attempted to attract young families to stay on the map.
Michael Tristani, 42, said at the time the 1,800-mile move was an answer to our prayers.
We dont have to look over our shoulder to see whos going to rob us, or jump out of the bushes to attack us, Tristani said. Taxes are low, the cost of living is low and the kids enjoy school.
But the family also found a cliquey community that treated them like outsiders. For my wife, its been a culture shock, he said.
Rural communities across the Great Plains, fighting a decades-long population decline, are trying a variety of ways to attract outsiders. But the Tristanis show how the efforts can fail even at a time when many people are desperate.
Its been quite an experience, 50-50 at best, Tristani said. It hasnt been easy. No one really wants new people here.
The Hazelton Development Corp. began running ads in 2005 offering families up to two free lots and up to $20,000 toward home purchases. Businesses were offered free lots and up to $50,000 for setting up shop in the town. The incentives were funded largely through private money.
Hazelton had little else to offer except elbow room. Surrounded by flat farm land and livestock, the century-old town boasts three churches, a bank, a grain elevator and a bar.
Tom Weiser, one of the city leaders behind the project to lure new residents, said Hazelton had hundreds of inquiries from around the world when the communitys proposal made headlines across the country. Several families from other states visited the town, but only the Tristanis made the commitment to move.
Not everybody fits in in a small town, Weiser said.
Michael Tristani came from his native Florida wearing gold necklaces and a Rolex and driving a Lexus. He proved as foreign as a flamingo in a place where pickups, farm caps and flannel shirts are de rigueur.
People thought I was a drug dealer, he said.
Tristani, a former grocery worker, and his wife, a former real estate agent, opened a bistro and coffee shop. But within weeks of moving to the town, the couple petitioned for a restraining order against the owners of another coffee shop. The Tristanis allege one of the owners drove by their house yelling obscenities and threatened to damage the familys new home.
Both businesses are now closed.
After his bistro failed, Michael Tristani said he began buying old houses in Bismarck, fixing them up and reselling them to earn money. Jeanette, 44, lost her job last year at a call center in nearby Linton when the business failed.
The couples home in Hazelton has been on the market since August.