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July 30, 2005

Man Wants to Create Town for the Deaf

From:, PA - Jul 30, 2005

The Associated Press

SALEM, S.D. - 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.

"This will allow us to make decisions on what happens to us as a whole," he says through a sign-language interpreter. "Don't like something? It's up to us to make the change. Today we can't do that. The whole point ... is to create a choice that we currently do not have."

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?


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."

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.

Carolyn and Larry Brick, retired educators who are deaf, traveled from Pennsylvania to attend after their son, a lawyer and longtime Miller friend, told them about Laurent.

"When I first heard about it, I grabbed my husband and said, 'We have to go there. We have to give our support,' " Carolyn Brick said in interviews conducted by e-mail and through an interpreter who relayed questions through a video hookup.

The former teacher was immediately sold on the idea, saying it would be a thrill to be able to talk with a postman, participate in a neighborhood meeting and just feel part of a community. "Nothing is lonelier than being with people you know, who can't communicate with you and who don't really care," she says.

She and her husband are now on the reservation list.

So is Steve Peterson, a 40-year-old deaf woodworker from Michigan, who also came to the meetings. "It sounds wonderful to me - not having prejudices on daily basis," he says.

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.

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

"When I grew up, I never saw a deaf mayor, a deaf garbage man or a deaf barber," he says. "I knew that I was different. I knew the kind of message society was sending to me was, 'You don't fit here.' "

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.

"When someone talks about bringing a new town to a county that has been in decline for 70 years, yeah, you certainly question whether it could be for real," he says. "We've been beat up so long, we forgot how to dream. ... It's hard for people to believe something this good could really happen in McCook County."

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

So did Pattie Mayrose, whose family farm is next to the proposed location for Laurent. "I don't see anyone else jumping at our doorstep, wanting to bring 2,000 people into our county," she says.

Opponents say that's precisely the problem. 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.

"We're trying to plant suburbia out in the middle of a field," says Eric Lacey, who works in his family's agricultural supply business. "It's not going to mix - the smells, the sounds, the equipment."

Todd Epp, a lawyer representing a group of opponents, puts it more bluntly: "They want to put a town in the middle of a bunch of cows and pigs, and cows and pigs stink."

Epp also says he's concerned because The Laurent Company has no track record for development - Miller's previous jobs include running a national newspaper for the deaf - and won't identify their investors.

Barwacz says $300,000 in family funds have been invested in the planning, and financing is being arranged by the father of a deaf girl who liked the Laurent plan and organized a group of "angel investors" to guarantee loans. She says the group is working with the First Dakota National Bank, but wouldn't provide any details.

Neither would John Isley, president of the Salem branch of First Dakota.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of planning to get this thing off the ground," he said. "Whether the finances fall in place, it's hard to say at this point."

If Laurent is built, it would a one-of-a-kind community in America.

Even so, it's not a new idea. Deaf people have long yearned for a place of their own, dating back to the early 19th century when activists talked about forming their own state.

Large numbers of deaf people also have lived in certain communities, most notably Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, where they and their hearing neighbors both used sign language in everyday life for 250 years. The practice faded by the early 20th century, according to H-Dirksen Bauman, professor of deaf studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Signing communities still exist in Israel and Bali, Bauman says.

The Laurent idea revives age-old questions about assimilating deaf people into the hearing society.

Bauman says there have long been contentious debates over whether deaf people should use sign or spoken language, attend special schools or be mainstreamed with hearing children and more recently, have cochlear implant surgery to improve hearing.

K. Todd Houston, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, doesn't like the Laurent idea.

"If someone says just because a child is born with hearing loss or is born deaf that they automatically have to use sign language to be accepted - I don't see that with today's technology," he says. "There have to be choices. Spoken language should be a choice."

Houston's group supports spoken language and hearing technology and says parents of deaf children are increasingly choosing those options. "I don't think the answer is further isolating yourself," he says.

But 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."

He insists this town would include everyone, including hearing parents of deaf children.

Jan McQueen, 57, plans to move from her Maryland home with her two adult sons, both of whom are deaf. She has a personal connection - she's a longtime friend of Barwacz, Miller's business partner in Laurent.

McQueen says her sons, both in their 30s, have struggled to find good jobs and when she mentioned Laurent, both said they'd like to open businesses there. "It's like a seed was planted," she says, "and they realized they had the possibility of a lot more opportunity."

Carolyn Brick, the retired teacher, sees it that way, too.

In an e-mail, she wrote that Laurent would broaden, not limit, her life.

"I can hardly imagine living in a place where we could communicate with everybody we meet," she said. "Right now it is just a dream, but one I'm willing to work for."


On the Net:

The Laurent Company:

National Association of the Deaf:

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing:

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