Image: Jeanette and Michael Tristani
Will Kincaid  /  AP
Jeanette and Michael Tristani stand outside their home in Hazelton, N.D., on Friday, Jan. 22. The couple and their two childern moved from Florida to Hazelton four years ago. Now they are moving back.
updated 2/15/2010 6:27:47 PM ET 2010-02-15T23:27:47

A tiny North Dakota town's promise of cash and free land lured only one family from out of state. Now, Michael and Jeanette Tristani and their 12-year-old twins are trying to move from the town without a traffic light back to Miami.

Tired of crime, traffic, hurricanes and the high cost of living in Florida, the Tristanis moved four years ago to Hazelton, a dwindling town of about 240 that has attempted to attract young families to stay on the map.

Michael Tristani, 42, said at the time the 1,800-mile move was "an answer to our prayers."

"We don't have to look over our shoulder to see who's going to rob us, or jump out of the bushes to attack us," Tristani said. "Taxes are low, the cost of living is low and the kids enjoy school."

‘A culture shock’
But the family also found a cliquey community that treated them like outsiders. "For my wife, it's been a culture shock," he said.

Rural communities across the Great Plains, fighting a decades-long population decline, are trying a variety of ways to attract outsiders. But the Tristanis show how the efforts can fail even at a time when many people are desperate.

"It's been quite an experience, 50-50 at best," Tristani said. "It hasn't been easy. No one really wants new people here."

The Hazelton Development Corp., formed by a determined group of citizens, began running ads in 2005 offering families up to two free lots and up to $20,000 toward home purchases. Businesses were offered free lots and up to $50,000 for setting up shop in the town.

Besides cash and free land, Hazelton had little else to offer except elbow room. Surrounded by flat farm land and livestock, the century-old town boasts three churches, a bank, a grain elevator and a bar.

Like many small towns across rural America, the once thriving farming community began shrinking as residents moved on or passed away.

Tom Weiser, one of the city leaders behind the project to lure new residents, said Hazelton had hundreds of inquiries from around the world when the community's proposal made headlines across the country. Several families from other states visited the town but only the Tristanis made the commitment to move.

"Not everybody fits in in a small town," said Weiser, who works as a baker at Wal-Mart in Bismarck, about 45 miles away.

Hay bales, a gas station and a graveyard greet visitors as they roll into Hazelton off the state highway.

Small-town drama
Michael Tristani came from his native Florida wearing gold necklaces and a Rolex and driving a Lexus. He proved as foreign as a flamingo in a place where pickups, farm caps and flannel shirts are de rigueur.

"People thought I was a drug dealer," he said.

Tristani said he was prepared for Hazelton's bitter winters — when wind chills can reach 50-degrees below zero and snow drifts are measured in feet — but not the small-town drama.

"People prejudge you without getting to know you," Jeanette Tristani said.

The couple bought a house built by students at an American Indian college in Bismarck. The home was moved to town and put on two lots donated by the city. The Tristanis bought a third lot and were later given $15,000.

Tristani, a former grocery worker, and his wife, a former real estate agent, opened a bistro and coffee shop. But within weeks of moving to the city, the couple petitioned for a restraining order against the owners of another coffee shop. The Tristanis allege one of the owners drove by their house yelling obscenities and threatened to damage the family's new home.

"He appears to be out of control," The Tristanis wrote in court papers. "At times, it's difficult to understand the rest of the words he's using on my family due to his uproar."

Both businesses are now shuttered.

Trips to the Bismarck Wal-Mart
After his bistro failed, Michael Tristani said he began buying old houses in Bismarck, fixing them up and reselling them to earn money. Jeanette, 44, lost her job last year at a call center in nearby Linton when the business failed.

The Tristanis say the family enjoys spending time together and has little to do with the locals. They relish trips to a Wal-Mart in Bismarck.

The couple's home in Hazelton has been on the market since August, though the for-sale sign has been covered with snow for weeks.

School Superintendent Brandt Dick said losing the Tristani twins, a boy and a girl in the seventh grade, would be a blow to the shrinking enrollment.

Dick said there are 72 students enrolled at the local high school, and that the number is expected to fall to 31 in four years.

"We are declining in numbers and will continue to decline unless something changes," he said.

Bev Voller, a member of the nonprofit development group, said the incentives were funded largely through private money, much of it from "an anonymous donor."

But, she says, "the cash thing is over now."

‘Cold weather has them freaked’
Kim Preston, a spokeswoman for the rural advocacy group Center for Rural Affairs, based in Lyons, Neb., said the offer of free land to lure new residents to wilting towns is a phenomenon that started in the past decade.

But the small communities that have had success are near larger communities, she said.

"For it to work, it needs to be no more than a 30-minute commute," she said.

It's a 45-minute drive from Hazelton to Bismarck — in good weather. And the weather is often bad.

Jeanette said the main reason she wants to move back to the Miami area is to care for her elderly parents. Michael said he couldn't convince his wife's parents to join them in Hazelton.

"The cold weather has them freaked," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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