The new company towns

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Cash handouts and high-speed Internet are attracting people to unlikely places now that remote working is on the rise.

On her first visit to Tulsa, Okla., Joanna Schreck went apartment hunting — with US$2,500 in her pocket to cover up-front relocation costs and the knowledge that she would get a $500 monthly stipend just for settling there. Schreck, a 34-year-old native New Yorker who works remotely for a company that organizes trade and consumer shows, is one of the first batch of Tulsa Remote fellows, enticed to the city to work with a package of goodies, including up-front cash and a membership to a coworking space.

“It felt like the perfect fit,” explained Schreck, though her only previous association with Tulsa were the words tornado alley. “I could explore a new area, travel locally, meet amazing people who had the same mind-set, and they were going to pay me to move there.”

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of Americans who work from home at least half the time rose 115 percent. The rise of the remote worker is both a catalyst and opportunity for the development of a new kind of company town: Instead of a single employer or industry dominating, it’s led by a style of employment.

Tulsa Remote, which launched in November 2018, is actively embracing that trend. It’s funded by a Tulsa-based charitable organization founded by oil billionaire George Kaiser. The idea is that new talent will attract other businesses and startups, and reverse population stagnation. More than 10,000 people applied for the first spots. The program is now expanding from its initial 25 fellows to 100.

More and more, overlooked cities and states are getting creative, combining public and private economic enticements to appeal to remote workers. Starting this year, Vermont, which is dealing with an aging population and years of little to no growth, is offering $10,000, paid out over two years, to remote workers who move to the state; the state legislature approved $500,000 over three years to go toward the effort. Earlier this year, a state senator from Western Massachusetts filed a bill for similar legislation to encourage remote workers to move to the often-ignored part of the state. Maine, Montana, Kentucky, Florida — they’re all offering incentives, in the form of student loan forgiveness or tax breaks or an outright payment. Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Detroit are relying on word-of-mouth and investment in urban services to attract millennials, entrepreneurs, and remote workers. And it’s not just an American trend.

In 2017, faced with a declining and aging population, the medieval town of Candela, Italy, began offering cash to potential new residents, the catch being that they needed to have jobs. The tiny, windswept island of Stronsay, off Scotland, made its pitch to remote workers with a campaign encouraging them to join the 300 current island residents in a “rich social and cultural life underpinned by a sense of place, freedom and self-sufficiency that many city dwellers frustrated with the frenetic pace of modern life can only dream about.”

I am originally from North Texas, just a few hours from the Oklahoma border. Relations between our states have been playfully contentious for decades. So my first thought when I heard of the program in Tulsa was, “Yeah, but you’d have to live in Tulsa.” Then I talked to Aaron Bolzle, who returned to the city after 14 years in the tech industry to run the program. Tulsa, he argues, is an undiscovered gem. The city boasts one of the largest groups of art deco buildings in the U.S., one of the 50 best fine art museums, and a globally renowned ballet. The last few years have seen a craft beer boom and the construction of a new, multimillion-dollar riverfront park. The cost of living is low, and traffic practically nonexistent. “Tulsa has the opportunity to offer a great quality of life and a community that is really excited about people coming,” he said.

All of these smaller, less-well-known cities are hoping people who can work from anywhere will choose to work from there, bringing their money, community, and investment with them. But will it work?

Staying power

The short answer is it’s too soon to tell — most of these programs are just getting started. But there are places where remote workers are already changing the local economy dramatically. Since 1990, the population of Bend, Ore., the sort of aggressively healthy town where everyone wears outdoor gear everywhere, has nearly quadrupled. More than 70,000 people have poured in, many of them refugees from the pricey coastal real estate scene and all of them looking for better living in Oregon, enabled by remote working possibilities. According to recent data, Boulder, Colo., leads the nation with 14.9 percent of its workforce telecommuting. Bend is second with 12.1 percent.

Though it didn’t actively look for remote workers, Bend is now reorienting its economy to accommodate them. This means new schools, new housing developments, nonprofits dedicated to incubating tech startups, communal work spaces, and an excess of coffee shops.

It’s hard to root against any program looking to revitalize an area that needs it, but the true digital nomad might not stay anywhere long enough to make a difference.

This model — remote workers forming the basis of a local economy — could have the power to change the trajectory of deprived rural areas, which, in the U.S. at least, have seen their job market shrink by up to 4.26 percent since 2008. People who used to work for long-gone industries could be retrained to become remote workers themselves. FlexJobs, for example, is partnering with Teleworks USA, an offshoot of the nonprofit Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, to match residents of impoverished Eastern Kentucky with remote positions. So far, they’ve found jobs for more than 330 residents with 15 employers.

“The [region’s] industry was coal-based and coal-related jobs.… When that went down, everything closed down,” explained Flexjob’s Brie Reynolds. “To go from very few employers in the area to 15 employers, that is a really big deal. It gives people in the area hope…. It’s a game changer for a lot of people. Remote work can be done from pretty much anywhere, as long as there’s high-speed Internet and willing employers.”

Local backlash

But a city or state making decisions about who it wants to live there is raising some local concerns. The Vermont Workers’ Center, for example, complained that the state is “luring tech bros to gentrify our communities,” to the detriment of the poor already living there. And Vermont’s legislature might want to attract new residents, but its current residents might be less enthusiastic. One recent transplant from Mississippi told the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit research organization, that someone told her to go back to where she came from. Vermont, she said, “is not the liberal utopia it’s portrayed as.” She is considering a move to San Diego.

It’s hard to root against any program that is looking to revitalize an area that needs it or to dislike the idea that people can live where they want rather than where they have to live. But perhaps that illustrates the biggest concern: Now that we have the power to work anywhere, the true digital nomad might not stay anywhere long enough to make a difference.

Schreck, meanwhile, is still finding her feet in Tulsa. She moved there on March 30, 2019. When we talked in early April, she was happy with her decision: “Tonight I have dinner plans at a burger happy hour with a stranger I sat next to at a banh mi shop yesterday. If that doesn’t show you how cool this place is...mic drop.” Maybe she’ll stay.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is a freelance journalist living in England whose work examines why people do the things they do. She writes regularly for the Boston Globe and Smithsonian magazine.

 
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