It’s the latest trend in economic development. Pay work-from-home workers to move to your county. Since they work remotely, they aren’t competing for jobs. And with incomes typically of $100,000 or more, they are not competing for affordable housing.
Remote worker incentive programs are being tried all over the country — just not in Virginia. Supporters tout them as a way to boost tax revenues and bring young, educated people into counties and towns that are aging and/or losing population.
A program called Ascend West Virginia is paying remote workers $12,000 to move to four localities — Morgantown, Greenbrier Valley, Eastern Panhandle and Greater Elkins — in the Mountain State. Privately funded through a $25 million donation from former Intuit (TurboTax) CEO Brad D. Smith and his wife, Alys, it would seem to have little risk for the localities involved. Yet the program has not been without critics, and it is still too early to tell how much it will benefit poor West Virginians.
One thing is certain — Ascend has been wildly popular with would-be West Virginians since its launch in April 2021. It has received more than 20,000 applications. The first community to welcome newcomers was Morgantown, which has admitted 87 new residents. The next community to open its doors was the Greenbrier Valley, most familiar to outsiders for the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs.
In addition to the cash incentive, Ascend offers a year of free outdoor recreation perks including gear rental. It’s a package that was irresistible to Mike Renner, a website developer from North Dakota.
“West Virginia was the last thing on my mind until I discovered the Ascend program,” said Renner, 40. He saw it in a magazine, then checked out the website.
Ascend entices its target group with natural beauty and outdoor recreation. “And me being an outdoor person and us being an outdoor family, that really resonated with us. The website talked about achieving a work-life balance in a small mountain town. And that really appealed to our family. So I immediately applied and crossed my fingers.
“After a few months, we heard back from Ascend, scheduled an interview. It was only after the interview that we went and made a scouting trip to West Virginia. And it only took us a few days to make the easy decision to relocate our family there.”
In April, Renner, his wife, Bre, and their 4-year-old daughter, Amelia, moved to Lewisburg, the county seat of Greenbrier County. Bre, a Georgia native, found her new home to be Almost Heaven compared to North Dakota, at least weather-wise. “I’ve been joking with people that we moved to West Virginia for the warmer winters,” Renner said.
The Renners are contemplating a home purchase, but are content for now with a rental. “We are renting in a really nice neighborhood in Lewisburg, where we love our neighbors, we know many of them on a first-name basis. We’ve been invited to backyard barbecues. My wife is a member of several different kinds of groups in town, including a gardening group. So we’ve really felt welcome here.
“Everyone that we’ve met in Lewisburg has been really welcoming to the idea of this program, eager to welcome new people into the community.
“My first week in town the guy painting my rental arrived one day with a bag full of freshly harvested ramps and said, ‘Welcome to West Virginia.’ That’s how it’s gone ever since. This area seems to really embrace visitors and are proud of their community.”
The Renners have already taken advantage of many nearby attractions, including the Greenbrier River Trail, Greenbrier State Forest and the Cranberry Glades.
“My wife and I, we’ve always valued experiences in life,” he said. “When we announced that we’re going to be moving to West Virginia as part of this experimental program, that didn’t surprise many people because this is right in line with how we’ve always lived our lives.” Ascend has been “a catalyst for adventure and new experience and opportunity.”
A West Virginia native, Brad D. Smith hit it big in business before returning to the Mountain State. In January 2022 he became president of his alma mater, Marshall University. Believing that quality of life and outdoor opportunities could lure remote workers, the Smiths established the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University. They started Ascend in cooperation with the state of West Virginia.
So far, 37 people have moved to the Greenbrier Valley, 84.8% non-natives of the state. Their average annual salary is $125,937. Over 90% have an undergraduate degree or higher. They work remotely for companies such as Cisco, ADP, KPMG, Deloitte and Verizon. Ascend plans to open a shared office space for them in Lewisburg.
Locals have been accepting of the newcomers, said Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White. Real estate agents have found homes for the newcomers. “Everybody couldn’t be housed in Lewisburg, so we’ve reached out to Ronceverte and White Sulphur and places north. And because of the price ranges, it would not have affected our lower income families at all.”
Greenbrier County has been losing population. From 35,480 in 2010, it dropped to 32,977 in 2020.
In 2020 the median household income was $41,694. Among those 25 or older, 19% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. People 65 and older made up almost 24% of the population. The newcomers are younger, better educated, more affluent.
There are many anecdotal reports of Ascenders spending locally, starting side businesses and volunteering, said Emily Huguenin, director of Ascend, but “as far as numbers, dollars and cents economic impact, I think we’re a little bit too early.” She expected to have more specifics after the initial Morgantown class had completed two years of residence.
Over the first year with Ascend WV, award winners receive $10,000, paid in equal monthly installments, she said. The first monthly installment is received after the first month of residency. After 24 months of consecutive residency, the award winners receive the final $2,000 installment.
Like an Ivy League university, Ascend is extremely selective. Less than 1% of applicants make the cut. “We work with our communities of emphasis to determine a sustainable and scalable number of people to admit each year,” Huguenin said. “We have a system that allows us to evaluate each application quantitatively and qualitatively and narrow down applications to a smaller selection for personal interview.”
Danielle Walker, a Democrat who represents Morgantown in the state House of Delegates, was quoted in a 2021 article by Mackenzie Mays on Politico.com, complaining about Ascend paying out-of-state people when many native West Virginians are struggling to earn a livable wage. Contacted by Cardinal News, Walker declined to talk about Ascend, saying she wanted to study the program’s economic impact before commenting further.
Huguenin, the Ascend director, said, “The vision behind the Ascend WV program is that if we focus on addressing the population loss that West Virginia has experienced in the last few decades, we can help replenish the taxpayer base that funds our services that all West Virginians rely on.” She also noted that Ascend is not the state’s only economic development program.
Hoyoung Yoo is a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is studying the impact of remote worker relocation programs. She said there are more than 30 relocation programs in the United States that specifically target remote workers, in addition to other programs that have broader target groups, such as entrepreneurs. She said the number of remote worker relocation programs is increasing in response to the surge in location-flexible jobs.
She said she was not yet prepared to draw conclusions about the economic impact, but did point to two recently released studies.
The Economic Innovation Group, which describes itself as a bipartisan public policy organization, studied Tulsa Remote, a remote worker relocation incentive program in Tulsa, OK.
“Tulsa Remote is one of the earliest and most noteworthy initiatives in the United States designed to harness remote work to level the national playing field for talent,” according to the group’s report. “The early evidence suggests that it is having a significant impact on the local economy.” The authors estimated that Tulsa Remote added $62 million in new local earnings in 2021. Of that, $51.3 million was directly attributable to relocated remote workers and $10.7 million to the employment boost generated in the local economy. There was an estimated $13.77 boost in new local labor income for every $1 spent toward relocating a remote worker. On average, approximately one new job was created in Tulsa for every two remote workers who relocated.
In Vermont, a study of worker relocation grant programs concluded that incentive payments were re-paid through tax revenues to the state in less than two years.
Matthew Kahn is a provost professor of economics and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California Dornsife. (Dornsife is a college at USC.) He published a book titled “Going Remote” in spring of 2022. “I come out in my book as a supporter of programs such as this,” he told Cardinal News.
An area is more likely to experience economic growth if it attracts more educated people, he said. “And unfortunately, in recent decades, the Appalachian region has been exporting its own trained people and not importing other educated people. And so this work from home incentive program is a brilliant effort to correct that.
“Before the work from home revolution, we had to live close to our jobs. The work from home revolution creates this possibility of living where you really want to live while being tied to superstar jobs in superstar cities.”
Kahn said that incentivized relocation program like Ascend are something that localities with dwindling populations should at least consider.
“A debate in modern urban economics, related to improving quality of life in a distressed area is, do you invest in the place, like building a light rail system or building a new sports system? Or do you invest in people, having a pre-kindergarten program, having a job retraining program, or trying to lure talented people from other areas to move in? I’m a fan of investing in both.”
Like other stakeholders and observers, Kahn is watching to see what the long-term results of Brad and Alys Smith’s financial investment in West Virginia will be. “In 30 years, if I’m still alive, I want to know, for the 2,000 people who move in, do their children remain in the area, is this going to create new dynasties taking shape and having permanent roots in the area? And so the persistence of the rich family’s donation is fascinating to me.”
Kerry Dougan, a New Jersey native, is a manager for BigMouth, a Nebraska company that manufactures gifts and novelty items. A remote worker, she was living in upstate New York and applied for Tulsa Remote. She changed her mind about moving to Oklahoma and started Googling similar opportunities in Tennessee and West Virginia. She was accepted into Ascend and bought a house in Caldwell, Greenbrier County, in April.
“In this area, in Greenbrier County and Lewisburg [housing is] more expensive than I would have thought,” she said. “But the taxes make a huge difference. So like, instead of paying $800 a month in taxes, I might be paying $100. So that’s really where it’s a big difference.”
Dougan said she was looking for “just change of pace. I wanted to be out of the Northeast … in mountains, lower taxes, less people. So it kind of just worked out perfectly for me.”
Prior to coming, Dougan saw some complaints about Ascend on social media. “In the beginning, I was worried that people were going to be upset about outsiders coming in. But I haven’t actually experienced that. I had one person say that he thought we were moving here to kind of change the politics. Which I don’t agree with that. That’s not the purpose of it. But I think I’ve heard other people in the [Ascend] group say that people have complained that we’re taking tax money, not realizing it’s privately funded. But personally, I haven’t had any issues.”
How long Dougan stays in the Mountain State is “going to just depend on jobs and what happens, but yeah, so far, I love it. And I love that it’s a small town, but it doesn’t feel too small, like, we still have a Walmart and stuff. So I mean, so far, I’m loving it.”