Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

About a month ago I got a text from a friend about a TV show. Aware of my reporting on rural Colorado and my love for reality TV, she knew that “Home Town Takeover,” an HGTV series that claims to makeover an entire small town, would be just up my alley.

The second season of “Home Town Takeover” is set in Fort Morgan, Colorado, a small town in the Eastern Plains, about an hour from Denver. Just off of I-76, the town boasts a population of 11,597 as of the 2020 census. “Home Town Takeover” claims to take a dying town and turn it into a thriving town, but how much of the credit can be given to HGTV?

Fort Morgan is portrayed as your quintessential middle-of-the-country rural town — featuring family-owned businesses, lots of agriculture, a couple of parks, and a main street that has seen better days. Like many small towns, the construction of the interstate just outside of town moved businesses out of downtown and brought more corporate chains to the Interstate corridor.

Stars from other HGTV shows, including Erin and Ben Napier (from the original “Home Town”), and Dave and Jenny Marrs (from “Fixer to Fabulous”), team up to bring life back to main street Fort Morgan and celebrate integral members of the community by giving them the homes of their dreams. Each episode features a local business renovation, a community beautification project like sprucing up a park or painting a mural, and a home renovation for a community member.

YouTube video
An extended preview of Home Town Takeover's second season (via HGTV on YouTube).

I have a core childhood memory of reading some magazine — probably American Girl — with a story about some lucky girl winning a bedroom makeover. Ever since, I’ve loved seeing spaces transformed by interior designers and architects. Given my additional passions for thriving rural communities and finding the perfect cafe in any small town I visit, “Home Town Takeover” was, in theory, my perfect show.

As host Erin Napier says on the show, the goal is to bring traffic back to main street, away from the big box stores lining the interstate, and to make Fort Morgan feel like a place people want to invest in, as both residents and visitors.

“We want people to see what’s so special about where they are. You can really bloom where you’re planted when you look around and see what good soil you’re in,” said Napier.

But the question I kept asking myself as I watched was, “What happens after the camera crew leaves?” Like all of these sorts of televised community revitalization efforts, what remains once the spotlight is off the town? While the hosts have plenty of great quotes about how much they want to revitalize the small town, how much of that is just for the cameras and the storyline?

Before and After

Since I happened to watch the show nearly a year after airing, and well over a year after filming, I was able to find some relevant before and after information. Scouring Google Reviews and reviewing material from the Colorado Department of Economic Development reveals some interesting developments around Fort Morgan.

Bottom line: Fort Morgan is up and coming — whether it's thanks to the physical renovations from “Home Town Takeover,” the widespread media coverage from the show, or simply the dedication of the entrepreneurs and residents of the town to make their community someplace that people want to live is unclear.

According to the Colorado Office of Economic Development, HGTV spent more than $2.4 million in Colorado, which would generate almost $270,000 in taxes, and hired 19 locals for the production. HGTV received a $490,173 incentive for filming the season in Colorado.

Morgan County also has the support of Colorado behind it. The county was designated a Rural Jump-Start Zone — which allows businesses in the zone to access grant funding and tax credits. It also is part of the Just Transition program which provides funding for Colorado communities that have previously depended on the coal industry.

According to Denver7 News, additional businesses such as a new bookstore and renovated movie theater have opened recently, bringing more life to Fort Morgan.

Fort Morgan's historic Main Street (Credit: Morgan County Tourism).

While watching the show, I wondered how many of the design choices were appreciated by the owners and residents as much as their on-camera smiles would make you think. For example, at Zazzy Cafe, the Marrs couple from “Fixer to Fabulous” chose to install swings for seating along the window — which sounds to me like a mess while drinking a cup of hot coffee. When looking through more recent Google Review photos, it seems as though at least some of the swings have been replaced by bar stools — although multiple reviewers seemed to find the remaining swings charming.

The tourism power of the show is also evident in reviews left on local businesses’ Google and Trip Advisor pages. For Zazzy Cafe and Mosqueda Delicacies Ice Cream & More, multiple reviews mention HGTV or the fact that the reviewers went out of their way to check out the businesses on a trip to Fort Morgan.

In a June 2023 interview with the Fort Morgan Times, Charles Cole, who owns China Grove, a retail store renovated by HGTV, said, “We have experienced a ten-fold increase in business.”

Since the announcement of the second season, Realtor.com reported that commercial businesses were selling more quickly than before and the show was expected to have a positive effect on the residential real estate market as well. However, this can also lead to homes that are priced higher than long-time residents can afford, as many rural areas are finding likewise with remote workers moving to their communities.

In February 2024, Fort Morgan’s median home listing price on Realtor.com was $347.5K, up from $332.5K in February 2023, before “Home Town Takeover” aired.

Ultimately, it seems that the attention and energy that “Home Town Takeover” brought to Fort Morgan, Colorado could not have been a bad thing. But other factors were already at play, including support from the Colorado Office of Economic Development, and efforts spearheaded by residents who already cared a lot about investing in their town. Whether the town was truly “dying” before the show, as the hosts seem to imply, is still up for debate.

As someone who has a soft spot for rural Colorado, loves a local business, and is swept up by a good home renovation, “Home Town Takeover” proved a fun and worthwhile watch all the same. And as a reporter focused on rural America, I know there are always more stories to be explored behind the camera.

Home Town Takeover airs on the cable network HGTV and is streaming on Max.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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