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March 15, 2005

Pioneer for the deaf plans to settle a new SD town

From: Minneapolis Star Tribune - MN,USA - Mar 15, 2005

Rene Sanchez, Star Tribune
March 15, 2005

SALEM, S.D. -- On the open prairie, miles from anywhere, Marvin Miller keeps dreaming.

He looks out across the tall grass tilting in the cold wind and sounds sure that one day soon his life's hope will rise up from scratch: homes, parks, shops and diners.

A whole new town, beckoning the deaf.

Miller, who was born deaf, has it all planned. He is ready to buy the land. He has hired architects and is in talks with county officials about managing water and waste. He has kindred spirits across the country eager to join him. He even knows the town's name: Laurent, in honor of the French educator who founded the first school for the deaf in the United States.

There is almost no model for what Miller has in mind. And no one in these parts has seen settlers start a town in more than 100 years -- "since the railroads came," one local official said. Marvin Miller talks with daughter Stefania. Stormi Greener

"We want pioneers," Miller said through an interpreter. "Just like those who came to live here way back when."

His idea is provoking great debate among the deaf. More than 90 families or individuals from 17 states -- along with a few people from England and Australia -- have their names on Laurent's reservation list. On the website Miller created for the town, they call it an inspiration that could showcase deaf culture and offer them financial power and political clout. Marvin Miller and his family Stormi????

"Being able to talk to the postman, the clerk at the store, the stranger who stops and asks for directions, being part of neighborhood meetings -- that would be such bliss!" Carolyn Brick, a retired deaf educator in Philadelphia, said in an e-mail.

Others worry that the town could isolate them or turn them into roadside curiosities.

On an Internet chat group Miller started, one deaf person accused him of trying to retreat "into a fantasy world."

"The idea is a true pipe dream," another wrote to him. "Utopias have been planned and established in the past and none have survived."

Miller, 33, has heard the doubts for a long time.

He said he has thought about living in a sign-language town since he was a teenager in Michigan. He has studied at the nation's premier college for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and has run a nationally circulated newspaper for the deaf. He also worked as a director at a company called Communication Service for the Deaf in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Miller moved with his wife, four young children and mother-in-law to South Dakota three years ago to create Laurent. He said he chose the state because it has few people, low taxes and cheap land. He intends to build the town beside Interstate Hwy. 90 between two of South Dakota's larger cities, Sioux Falls and Mitchell, so residents would be less than an hour's drive from a major airport and hospital.

A year ago, when Miller began scouting sites near Salem, population 1,371, residents welcomed him but had a common reaction to his plans.

"They thought we were crazy," Miller said.

Some still wonder whether he can manage all the intricacies of creating a town -- and whether enough deaf families will plant new roots there.

"Their first winter would be quite an educational experience," joked Bill Smith, a McCook County commissioner.

But the project is showing many signs of momentum.

More than 150 people attended a community meeting in Salem about the sign-language town this month and appeared receptive to it. Miller traveled to Florida recently to speak at a conference convened by the National Association of the Deaf and received the group's support. Next Monday, he is holding a master-planning session that will include local government agencies and a town-planning firm that he has hired.

Miller has surveyors examining two possible sites for the town that he is in negotiations to purchase. And he has opened an office in a former laundromat on Salem's Main Street that is filled with new computers and thick planning binders.

Miller said he expects to break ground this fall. He is already talking to sculptors about building a statue of Laurent Clerc in the center of the town.

"At first, there was a lot of skepticism," said Joe Bartmann, the director of the Greater McCook County Development Alliance. "But now I truly believe this is going to happen."

European style village

Miller's goal is to have as many as 2,500 residents in the sign-language town; it would not exclude people who hear.

He wants to build it on about 600 acres in the style of a European village -- with homes and apartments next to or near pedestrian-friendly streets that are filled with small businesses.

His plans for Laurent call for a hotel, gas station, restaurants and gift shops. All or most would be run by the deaf and opened in the hope of attracting travelers along I-90. He hopes to have schools, parks and churches.

The initial phase of the town's construction could cost more than $300,000, Miller said. He said he is relying on his own money, bank loans and several donations from benefactors who support deaf causes. He said they do not want their names made public.

Laurent would not be the nation's first deaf community. More than 200 years ago off the Massachusetts coast, a group of European settlers on the island of Martha's Vineyard carried a gene for deafness and produced generations of children who could not hear.

By the 19th century, one village on Martha's Vineyard had so many deaf residents that even those who could hear had to learn sign language to succeed there. But over time, as deaf settlers intermarried or moved to the mainland, the gene that had given rise to the community waned.

Miller said the small deaf society that existed for so long on Martha's Vineyard is proof that Laurent can offer many deaf people what they say they need most -- a deeper sense of belonging to a viable community.

"This is a chance of a lifetime," Robert Koch, 32, a technology manager in Sioux Falls who is deaf and eager to move to Laurent, said in an e-mail.

But since Miller arrived, some residents in the area have wondered why he is not trying to revive one of the many small towns in South Dakota that have been emptying for decades.

Want their own town

He and his mother-in-law, M.E. Barwacz, who is helping him lead the project, said they considered that approach.

"We decided we did not want to come in and overrun someone else's town," said Barwacz, 55, who is not deaf. "That could have created a lot of tension."

Miller's work on Laurent has become a full-time job. One afternoon last week, his Salem office, which is a few blocks from his house, buzzed with staff members preparing for the upcoming conference to finalize his plans for the town.

Near sunset, Miller drove five miles to the empty patch of land that may become Laurent's home. He talked about deaf pride and all the ways he expects the town to thrive. And for a few moments out there in the golden prairie grass, all he did was beam.

"We're marking a spot on the map," Miller said.

Then he packed all four of his kids back into his minivan and sped away to Salem. There was more work to be done.

Rene Sanchez is

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