updated 3/22/2005 6:00:54 PM ET 2005-03-22T23:00:54

Plans are being debated this week for the creation of a new town with the usual amenities: hotels, a convention center, retail shops and churches. But one thing will be different: Sign language will be the preferred way to communicate.

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The town is designed to make life easier and more practical for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents, said Terry Sanford, director of town planning for Nederveld Associates, a Grand Rapids, Mich., company that is overseeing the project.

“We want it to be a small town with independent shop owners and enterprises,” he said.

The town would be named Laurent after Laurent Clerc, the French educator who pioneered sign language in the United States. It is the brainchild of Marvin Miller, who was born deaf, and his mother-in-law, M.E. Barwacz.

A week of planning sessions that involves prospective residents and others began Monday in Madison. The town, to be located just west of Sioux Falls off Interstate 80, could welcome residents — deaf and hearing alike — as early as next year.

Plans include shops and homes within walking distance of each other. Each building would have strobe lights and sirens to warn residents of fires or other disasters. The businesses will have many windows to let in as much light as possible.

'We want pioneers'
Architects will incorporate suggestions from the planning sessions for an overall design plan to be presented on Friday.

“At the end of the process we will have pretty specific plans — house details, public buildings and street layouts, the retail centers,” Sanford said.

Ninety-two families and individuals have said they would move to Laurent, nearly the threshold number needed to apply to become a town.

“We want pioneers,” Miller told the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently through an interpreter. “Just like those who came to live here way back when.”

The first residents most likely would work in nearby cities such as Sioux Falls or Mitchell, Sanford said. But the plan is to build a community that supports itself by offering food, lodging and other services for travelers along Interstate 90 — a major byway for sights including Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Badlands and the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

“We are looking at it with open ears because economically, it could be a fantastic thing for McCook County,” said County Commissioner Ralph Dybdahl. “You don’t build towns every day.”

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