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Will deaf people have little town on prairie?



Published: Sat, July 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



One man's dream is to build a 2,500-resident community for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

SALEM, S.D. (AP) -- Even when the rain pelts the prairie, the soil thickens to mud and the pungent smell of cattle lingers in the air, Marvin Miller thinks this is the perfect place to be a pioneer.

The location is good, the people are friendly and, Miller says, open to new ideas.

And Miller has one very bold idea: He wants to build a new town where there is none, a community that would be carved out of the farm fields and draw hundreds of people from across the nation -- maybe even the world.

What would set this town apart is it would be home to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who want to live together. They'd raise their families here, send their kids to school and share a common language: sign language.

Police and politicians would sign, so would teachers and shopkeepers.

Miller says people who are deaf, as he is, often are isolated and frustrated by a hearing world that wields the power that shapes their lives. By forming a town, he says, they'd have the unity and political clout they're lacking now.

Welcome to Laurent

Miller has a name for his town: Laurent, for Laurent Clerc, a French educator who co-founded the first deaf school in America.

He has a reservation list, too: About 125 families, from New York to California, along with a few from foreign countries have signed up. Most are deaf or have deaf relatives, but everyone is welcome.

Miller's plan is still very much that -- a plan. But on Tuesday, county commissioners will vote on a proposed zoning change that could help smooth the way for Laurent.

But it surely will not end the debate. The prospect of building Laurent has not only divided folks here over whether it would bring prosperity or headaches, but it also has raised a larger cultural question:

Is this a good idea for deaf people?

Fulfilling a dream

It's a Herculean job to create a town.

Bringing Laurent to life would require tens of millions of dollars, years of work and a few thousand pioneers willing to leave their homes and move to a wind-swept prairie where cattle outnumber people by more than 7-to-1.

Some doubt Laurent will ever come to be. Miller does not.

He and his partner, M.E. Barwacz, who also is his mother-in-law, began studying possible locations four years ago. They formed The Laurent Company in 2003 after deciding on McCook County, which is typical of South Dakota -- lots of land, few people (5,864 residents, about 10 per square mile).

It fit the bill in other ways, too: It was just an hour west of a large city, Sioux Falls, had a major highway, Interstate 90, and was in a state with no personal property or income tax.

In 2003, Miller and Barwacz began making the rounds, wooing elected officials, answering questions -- and winning over some skeptics.

"At first, I thought there's no way on earth this could fly," says Geralyn Sherman, the county auditor. "But then you see it in black and white and you can see the vision if you just take yourself out of the box you live in day to day."

The plans

This spring, the Laurent owners invited the community to a week of hearings with developers, architects and prospective residents as they drew up plans for the town.

The plan is to build Laurent over 15 or 20 years on a relatively compact 320 acres of farm fields. Land has been optioned, but not purchased. The town would be located three miles south of Salem, the county's largest community, and be nearly twice as big with a population of 2,500.

While hearing people would live there, the town would be designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing: Lots of open space so people could see each other signing. More flashing lights on emergency vehicles. And a video service with interpreters signing phone conversations to deaf people who have monitors in their homes.

Finding a niche

While all that is appealing, Miller says Laurent would have something far more important: role models.

Miller has convinced many local folks that Laurent would be a good fit for the county. Supporters -- including the school superintendent and some business owners -- say it would bring people, money and jobs, all desperately needed commodities around here.

"The opportunity is tremendous, the risk is low," says Joe Bartmann, director of the Greater McCook Development Alliance, a business group.

Like so many rural areas, he says, the county has struggled with the loss of small farms, the exodus of young people searching for work and the disappearance of Main Street businesses -- hardware stores, car dealers and lumber yards have all shut their doors.

Eager as he is for new investment, Bartmann admits he had doubts at first.

But Bartmann says the more he heard, the more he liked the idea.

Concerns

Opponents say they don't want a few thousand new neighbors.

Some farmers worry Laurent could cramp their expansion plans. Other people fear heavy traffic, a drain on schools and services and complaints or even lawsuits from newcomers annoyed by the agricultural setting.

The National Association of the Deaf has endorsed Laurent, and Bauman is on board, too.

"It would increase the chances for the deaf community to be integrated into the American political system," he says, "and that would be much more difficult if people were scattered."

"The experience of being deaf in America is almost like being a foreigner," Bauman adds. "This is creating a sort of homeland where these people don't have to feel like foreigners."

Miller, whose wife, Jennifer, and their four young children (ages 2 to 8) are deaf and use sign language, also rejects the isolation argument.

"My kids are already separated," he said in an e-mail. "We lead completely parallel lives with the rest of the world now."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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