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FOR SALE: An entire South Dakota town

FOR SALE: An entire South Dakota town

  • Updated

So you spent all of Black Friday fighting crowds, scoping parking spaces and scouring shelves for the perfect gift for that special someone and you came up empty? Well, real estate agent Stacie Montgomery has got the perfect gift for someone who has everything.

How about owning your own South Dakota small town?

Sixteen months after the tiny West River South Dakota town of Swett was first offered for sale — lock, stock and bar — generating media attention from Maine to Moscow, it’s back on the market at a deep discount, according to Montgomery.

Twice owned by Lance Benson, who lost the unincorporated hamlet in a divorce, gained it back in 2012, then lost it again last month to the Gordon, Neb., bank that held the mortgage, Swett is now a ghost town with a closed tavern, an empty haunted house, 6.16 acres of prime prairie real estate and a price tag that has been dropped from $399,000 to $250,000.

“I think it’s helped my business,” said Montgomery, a veteran real estate agent, as she displayed a can wrap with “Don’t let your can Swett,” and “Town for Sale” printed on it, one of 2,000 she had produced when she first listed the property in July 2014. “It’s been a year and a half and people still want to know about Swett.”

When the Rapid City Journal first published the story on July 2, 2014, of a small town for sale about two hours southeast of Rapid City, it set off a media firestorm that resulted in worldwide coverage and hundreds of phone calls and emails from prospects as far away as Australia, Russia, China and Germany, Montgomery said.

“The story first appeared on a Sunday morning on the front page,” Montgomery recalled. “I got my first media call at 11 that morning from FOX’s New York bureau and the phone did not stop ringing for two weeks. I was getting calls in the middle of the night, answering emails at 2 in the morning, and got several verbal offers and three written offers.”

In a matter of days, Montgomery fielded calls about the Bennett County town from deejays and reporters representing NPR, ABC News, USA Today, the International Business Times, MSN, Yahoo, AOL, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post, among others.

Molly Geanne, a 12-year-old from New York, wrote a song about Swett that went viral, YouTube featured a video parody, and then, the television reality show producers started calling.

“Someone pitched a concept for a Dry Idea deodorant commercial, 'Never let them see you Swett,’” Montgomery said, laughing. “One production company thought about rebuilding the town and calling it 'Swett Equity.'

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“But the weirdest one came from a guy out of Nebraska who wanted to bring in 2,000 women from Russia, and 600 men who were felons, and he was going to build acrylic houses and run cameras 24 hours a day,” Montgomery said incredulously. “I told him he needed to call the state because I couldn’t deal with the permits for anything like that.”

Eventually, the three written offers fell through for a variety of reasons, including an inability to gain bank financing. But that didn’t stop the emails from continuing, she said.

“Greeting to you,” emailed Samir Patel from Toronto. “What do I have to do to own this town, Swett, in SD? Please have this deal close by tomorrow.”

“I’m a self employed pipe-organ tuner looking for a shop and relocation,” wrote one respondent from Louisville, Ky., clearly unaware of the dearth of pipe organs within a 500-mile radius of the town. “I’m serious about this, let’s chat.”

“I still get phone calls,” said Montgomery, who has since changed agencies to Keller Williams Realty of the Black Hills, with which she listed the property in mid-November. “It was so exciting at first and I couldn’t keep up with calling everybody back. It’s not often that you see an entire town for sale.”

Montgomery said, given all the free publicity, she is still surprised that the property didn’t sell with the initial listing. But, after the bank recently cleaned up the tract, removing three decaying mobile homes and an aging transport truck, and dropping the price significantly, she is hopeful the new listing will generate valid prospects.

So, in addition to someone seeking that special Christmas present, what kind of person would buy an entire town?

“Some of the types of individuals who have been interested in the past included people who wanted to be their own mayor, people who wanted to live off-grid, several production companies thinking about reality shows, hunters who wanted to create a hunting lodge, or somebody who wants to own a bar,” Montgomery said.

In a similar situation, a Philippines-based church, Iglesia ni Cristo, purchased 46 acres of land in Scenic in 2011, paying $700,000 for the land and properties about 45 miles southeast of Rapid City four years ago. The land makes up nearly the entire town, including a gas station, store, museum and bar. The church says it is trying to recruit new members to live and worship in its own small South Dakota town.

According to the real estate listing for Swett, a post office was established in the local grocery store in 1932, owned by a farmer named Swett. In 1945, the government decided the town was too small and closed the post office. Since that time, Swett has been known for the popular Swett Tavern. The property, which comes with the tavern, without its liquor license, also includes a large garage and a residence that locals believe to be haunted.

“They even installed shiny new town signs for Swett,” Montgomery said. “The old ones had bullet holes in them.”

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