Programs Aim to Entice Workers to Relocate

An increasing number of philanthropy-financed projects hope to offset declining or sparse populations.

Robin Bruce at the first in-person Ozark Social event, Springdale, Ark., June 20, 2021.
Robin Bruce at the first in-person Ozark Social event, Springdale, Ark., June 20, 2021.
Samantha Farnsworth via AP

A year ago, Robin Bruce never thought she would be living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and liking it. That was before she took advantage of a program, largely financed by the Walton Family Foundation, that is offering $10,000 incentives to entice new residents to the Ozarks region.

Bruce, a singer, visual artist, and writer, was eligible for the financial incentive because Fayetteville understands that building its cultural vitality is key to attracting more residents to the area, which desperately needs to fill a fast-growing demand for tech and other skilled workers.

Entrepreneurs who want to build or expand their businesses and create jobs for the region and people who can do their jobs from anywhere — a growing segment of the labor force — are also eligible for the $10,000 incentives.

“I haven’t ever experienced anything like I’m experiencing here in terms of funding and casual connections,” Bruce said.

The effort in Northwest Arkansas is part of an increasing number of philanthropy-financed projects trying to spark economic development, promote civic and cultural life, attract skilled workers, and offset declining or sparse populations.

Remote workers are especially attractive because they tend to have high disposable incomes. They also are a lot less costly for cities and towns to attract, given the demands that companies make when they are pondering a relocation. Companies often want guarantees of skilled workers, tax abatements, or other government subsidies.

While foundations and donors were sprinkling money to attract workers to their regions before the pandemic, interest in the idea is spreading. Boosted by the flexibility workers discovered during quarantine, experts estimate that the number of people who don’t need to work in offices anymore will double over the next few years.

In Tulsa, the George Kaiser Family Foundation pioneered the financial-incentive approach in 2018. Nearly 50,000 people have applied since the start of the program. There was a 300% increase in applications after March 2020. Since it started, Tulsa Remote has had 1,000 participants and is on track to fill 750 slots this year.

Participants are required to stay one year to keep the $10,000 incentive, and 90% of people who moved to Tulsa stayed there after the one-year requirement. The Kaiser Foundation has invested $4 million in Tulsa Remote to offer remote workers and others an incentive to move to the city.

“We are humbled that so many have tried to replicate what we are doing at Tulsa Remote,” Ben Stewart, executive director of Tulsa Remote and a senior program officer at the Kaiser Foundation, wrote in an email.

Some places borrowing elements of the Kaiser-Tulsa Remote approach are Ascend WV in West Virginia, Remote Tucson, and Movers & Shakas in Hawaii.

Tulsa participants have moved from large states, including California, New York, and Texas. Most applicants to Ascend WV and Life Works Here, the Northwest Arkansas program, are also people who live in big states or in metropolitan areas. Applicants to all three programs said they were attracted by the lower cost of living, a slower pace, quality of life, and a desire to be part of a region’s mission of self-improvement or reinvention — and not just the cash incentive.

Last year, Brad Smith, a West Virginia native turned Silicon Valley executive, and his wife, Alys, made a $25 million donation to Ascend WV to fund cash incentives for people who move to his home state and to cover the cost of developing outdoor recreational options. He said the program was designed to appeal to “digital nomads,” many of whom the program has found are drawn to outdoor activities.

Smith, a former Intuit CEO, wrote in an email that “philanthropy can serve as a catalyst to innovate” and that he provided the money because he believes it’s important to help cities take a risk on new efforts like Ascend WV.

Life Works Here received $1.5 million from the Walton fund largely at the urging of Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Helen and Sam Walton, who started in Arkansas what became the Walmart empire.

Begun in 2020, Life Works Here expects to accept 100 participants into the program by fall, 35 of whom have been selected. About 30,000 applied. Participants are required to stay a year to keep the full $10,000 incentive.

Meanwhile, Smith is among those hoping that Ascend WV will help reverse the state’s declining population, which fell about 3.3% from 2010 to 2020, to about 1.8 million, according to census data.

Ascend WV will choose its first 50 participants from 7,500 applicants. The first participants will relocate to Morgantown. Participants are required to stay two years to keep the full $12,000 incentive.

With a high demand and generous funding, Smith said, Ascend WV’s goal is to attract 1,000 remote workers to the state over the next three to five years, bringing them in groups of 25 to 50 at a time “so they are able to form new social relationships, get to know the area, and settle in.”

All of the programs aim to retain the new residents by offering opportunities for them to connect with fellow participants and get involved with local nonprofits. Building such connections is crucial to retention, program supporters said.

About 3% of workers worked remotely full-time before the pandemic, said Brent Meyer, a policy adviser and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, citing the Survey of Business Uncertainty, done by the Atlanta Fed, the Chicago Booth School of Business, and Stanford University.

That figure is expected to double to 6%, or about 7.4 million workers, as businesses make permanent adjustments to their policies as the pandemic eases, said Meyer.

Stewart said the foundation didn’t hesitate to fund the program because leaders were confident the city could attract remote workers, especially with a $10,000 nudge. Tulsa has seen much redevelopment, including the Tulsa Arts District and the Gathering Place, a riverfront park.

Edna Martinson and her husband, Clarence Tan, brought not only their jobs but also a company. They are co-founders of Boddle Learning, an educational technology company, with a remote staff, who moved to Tulsa from Kansas City in August 2020. They were attracted by an entrepreneurial ecosystem that includes free co-working space and access to investors who can provide venture capital.

“Then we found out all of this could come with $10,000,” she said. “Awesome!”

The move to Tulsa has been good for Boddle Learning and arguably the city. Since relocating, the company, which had 11 full-time employees, hired a local employee, and another new hire is scheduled to move to Tulsa from the United Kingdom this fall.

The three programs heavily screen applicants to make sure the cities are a good fit for them. That approach helps with retention, said Danny Twilley, assistant dean of the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, which runs Ascend WV in partnership with the West Virginia Tourism Office.

“We want people who want to be part of the community,” he said. “They understand West Virginia. They believe in West Virginia.

Bruce, the artist who relocated to Fayetteville, said she moved to the town even before she found out about Life Works Here and the remote-worker incentive. She had applied to the master of fine arts program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and came for a visit.

She was ecstatic to see an affordable rent of $700 for a two-bedroom apartment instead of the $1,800 for a similar unit in Boulder.

“Space is so important for creativity, and I’m not only speaking physical space,” she said. “There is the financial space as well.”

This article was provided to the Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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