How the pandemic is sweetening the lure of smaller cities’ relocation incentives | Analysis
Communities in 24 states are trying to attract new residents by offering them incentives to move
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By Tim Henderson
TULSA, Okla. — Moving from New York City to Tulsa, Oklahoma, might seem an unlikely choice for a young African American scientist like Christopher Bland. His new home is known as an old oil boomtown—and as the site of a massacre of Black residents 100 years ago.
But life in his sixth-story West Harlem walkup was starting to wear on him, just as remote work in the pandemic freed him to live anywhere and still conduct his pediatric health environmental research for a Manhattan hospital. And Tulsa’s new artistic vibe reminded him of Athens, Georgia, where he studied at the University of Georgia.
“I wasn’t getting that life that I loved and appreciated,” said Bland, 28. “It’s nice there in New York, but it was expensive. It was cramped. Then came the COVID lockdowns, and I was stuck up there with my roommate. I got tired of being uncomfortable.” He now has luxuries he could only imagine in Manhattan: his own place, an elevator, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer.
“If I could find that in New York, it would have been $4,000 a month, so four times what I’m paying here,” said Bland. “It’s a win-win situation. I get to come here and experience a new place and maybe fall in love with it and stay.”
The $10,000 Tulsa dangled as an incentive didn’t hurt, either. Movers such as Bland, who relocated in November 2020, are giving some hope to inland and rural cities looking for more residents and economic vibrancy.
Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to makemymove.com, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.
So far, many areas have failed to bring in significant numbers of remote workers despite offering incentives. Most don’t have the staff and money backing the Tulsa Remote program, which is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Even so, smaller areas have found advantages in remote worker programs. Natchez, Mississippi, a river town north of New Orleans where the population has been declining for decades, saw home sales double to 700 in the past year, even though only 12 people have used a $6,000 incentive for remote workers, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc. Economic Development, which operates the Shift South remote worker incentive plan.
“I believe the Shift South publicity helped that number get to 700,” Russ said. “It was a chance to tell people, people who would never have heard of Natchez, that it was a good place to live.”
ulsa’s program is often cited as a rare success story. It moved 100 people in its first year, 2019, and despite the pandemic it projects another 950 moves this year. Along with cash incentives up to $10,000 for living in Tulsa at least a year, the program offers a free trip to check out the area and intensive social networking in person and online.
The program has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, which found early struggles to recruit Black men, who tended to drop out before visiting Tulsa. However, the study’s author, Prithwiraj Choudhury, said in an email that the program “has had great success in attracting a diverse population of remote workers.”
A new study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found the new workers created almost $14 in new local labor income—a measure of earnings by employees and business owners—for every dollar spent on relocating workers, adding $62 million in earnings by the workers themselves and the jobs created to support them in 2021.
Oklahoma leaders, noting the program’s success, enacted a law in April offering state funding to other cities that want to follow Tulsa’s lead. At least one city, Stillwater, has signed up. But some legislators say the programs won’t work without better internet access.
“We will need to further expand rural broadband to make this program the success it promises to be,” said Rep. Kevin Wallace, a Republican from a district near Oklahoma City who co-sponsored the new law.
Many workers who moved to Tulsa say they were put at ease by an initial visit, paid for by Tulsa Remote, during which they met people like themselves who had moved and had similar interests.
“Everybody is like a family here. It’s a community full of friends,” said Bland.
For Maria Kim, who moved to Tulsa in March after working remotely as a copywriter from Colombia, South Korea and Turkey, the friendships were a major selling point. Tulsa Remote offered her access to Slack channels with social and work discussions for participants.
“I spent days reading these conversations and I got even more excited because the only downside I had from traveling alone was this idea of community,” Kim said. “Hopping around different countries, making friends on the fly, I had missed out on the longer lasting connections.”
She now works with some of her new Tulsa friends at a creative services startup. The $10,000 incentive helped her cushion the highs and lows of freelancing while working on the startup, she said, a career change after her longtime stint as a bartender in Washington, D.C.
Not all inland cities can replicate Tulsa’s success, which depended on a large existing population—more than a million people live in the Tulsa area—along with foundation grants devoted to developing a tech center with amenities such as a new riverfront park with elaborate playgrounds and a lodge-style public workspace.
“A lot of these [other] places have one staff member. We have 20,” said Grant Bumgarner, an alumni experience manager at Tulsa Remote.
He said a large part of his job is introducing potential residents to Tulsa’s revamped arts district.
“Tulsa is inherently undervalued. It has almost no place in the national consciousness. People’s first impression is either ‘podunk’ or nothing,” said Baumgarner. “I have yet to bring someone here who wasn’t impressed.”
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