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Small Dakota Town Turns to Retirees for New Blood

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Welcome to Ashley, North Dakota. Retirement haven.

Retirement haven?

“I never heard of it before,” said Katie Sloan, a housing specialist with the American Assn. of Retired Persons in Washington.

Leaders of Ashley, a farm town of about 1,200 near the South Dakota border, plan to change that.

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The town has no luxury condominiums or sandy beaches. But it has other appeals.

“You can get up at 3 a.m. and go for a walk, and no one cares. You can go for a walk to the park to see the sun rise,” said Robert Dockter, whose father retired in Ashley.

As you drive into Ashley along State Highway 11, there’s the Lake Hoskins Recreation Area, then farm fields with gray grain elevators standing guard along the railroad tracks.

Main Street has the McIntosh County Bank, a hardware store, two cafes and City Hall.

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Leo Geiger, administrator of the Ashley Medical Center, and Bud Overbo, a bank vice president, came up with the plan to advertise Ashley in magazines read by retirees. About a year ago, they thought of attracting retired people as a way to increase the population and preserve existing jobs.

“You’ve got to have doctors, but you can’t attract doctors unless you have enough bodies,” said Geiger, 61, who said he’s interested in retiring in Ashley himself.

“Retirees can sell their homes and buy a more moderate home in Ashley. They’d be able to use the interest to live on,” said City Councilman Myron Schlepp, an insurance salesman.

The retirement plan has no organized opposition, although some worry their community will age too much, council members said.

People thinking of retiring in Ashley might want to know that:

- It sits on prairie land, 80 miles from Aberdeen, S.D., the nearest big city. St. Paul, Minn., is 350 miles east. A freight train runs through town once a week during harvest time, once every two or three weeks otherwise.

- The average three-bedroom home costs $30,000.

- The city has a nine-hole golf course with sand greens, pinochle and gin tournaments, and frequent dances and church and civic group-sponsored social events.

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- Ashley notes its one full-time police officer, two police vehicles and two jail cells as evidence of a crime-free environment.

- The city is the seat of McIntosh County, with a 1.6% unemployment rate. The medical center, with 26 hospital beds and 51 nursing home beds, is Ashley’s largest employer.

The new, not-for-profit Ashley Development Corp. was formed by the business people of Ashley, who hope to get grant money to promote Ashley in retirement magazines, Dockter said. But it may be an uphill battle.

“Every once in a while we do get a call from a community interested in enhancing its tax base,” Sloan said in Washington. “But the reality is that most retirees don’t move very far.”

Still, the biggest promotional obstacle may be the weather. In January, the National Weather Service says, the average high temperature is 18 degrees, with the average low at 4 below zero.


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