‘Pay to move’ at­tracts peo­ple — not em­ploy­ers

Lodi News-Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Mar­sha Mercer

WASH­ING­TON — For decades, cities and states have tried to cre­ate jobs and boost their economies by lur­ing out-of-state em­ploy­ers. Now some ar­eas are try­ing to at­tract work­ers — one worker at a time.

Start­ing this month, pro­grams in Ver­mont and Tulsa, Okla., will pay peo­ple to re­lo­cate to those places if they work re­motely. Other res­i­dent re­cruit­ment strate­gies in Florida, Kansas, Maine, Michi­gan, Min­nesota and Ver­mont in­clude week­ends that tempt tourists to stay, dis­counted rent, stu­dent loan as­sis­tance and free land.

“It’s a de­par­ture — very much a sharp de­par­ture” from Ver­mont’s tra­di­tional pro­grams, said Joan Goldstein, com­mis­sioner of the Ver­mont De­part­ment of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment. “We need peo­ple.”

The shift in strat­egy marks a recog­ni­tion that as fewer peo­ple are teth­ered to brickand-mor­tar of­fices, state and lo­cal of­fi­cials can reap the ben­e­fits of work­ers’ spend­ing and taxes no mat­ter where their em­ploy­ers are based.

“You need the peo­ple to get the busi­nesses to come, and a lot of small places are im­me­di­ately out of the run­ning be­cause the peo­ple aren’t there. It feeds on it­self,” said Doug Far­quhar, pro­gram di­rec­tor for ru­ral de­vel­op­ment with the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures.

Far­quhar sees “pay to move” as “some­what of a des­per­ate plea: We need ed­u­cated peo­ple to come here and stay here.” He cau­tions that lit­tle re­search has been done on the ef­fec­tive­ness or sus­tain­abil­ity of the strat­egy. And in Ver­mont, some ad­vo­cates for the poor have crit­i­cized state of­fi­cials for “lur­ing tech bros to gen­trify our com­mu­ni­ties.”

But in a state that is des­per­ate for more peo­ple — Ver­mont has about 620,000 res­i­dents, with about 45 per­cent of them re­tired or about to re­tire — of­fi­cials are will­ing to give it a try.

“The orig­i­nal idea was to give in­cen­tives to out-of-state com­pa­nies to find peo­ple who want to live here,” said Demo­cratic state Sen. Michael Sirotkin, chair­man of the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment com­mit­tee. “We de­cided to give the money to the work­ers and let them find their jobs.”

Ver­mont Gov. Phil Scott, a Repub­li­can, signed the Re­mote Worker Grant Pro­gram in May. The leg­is­la­ture pro­vided $500,000 over three years to re­im­burse ex­penses of re­mote work­ers from other states who re­lo­cate.

Each worker can re­ceive up to $10,000 in grants over two years. El­i­gi­ble ex­penses in­clude com­puter soft­ware and hard­ware, in­ter­net ac­cess and mem­ber­ship in a cowork­ing space.

Tulsa also is fo­cus­ing on re­mote work­ers. Tulsa Re­mote will pay work­ers who pass a strin­gent on­line screen­ing process and live in Tulsa for a year $10,000 in cash in­stall­ments. Work­ers also will re­ceive free mem­ber­ship in a cow­er­ing space and hous­ing dis­counts. The pi­lot project is funded and ad­min­is­tered by the pri­vate Ge­orge Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion. No pub­lic funds are in­volved.

Tulsa’s pop­u­la­tion, about 400,000, has been flat for decades. The foun­da­tion was look­ing for ways to at­tract new tal­ent to the city, said Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Ken Le­vit. The foun­da­tion has al­ready brought 50 artists and writ­ers to Tulsa for a year or more through the Tulsa Artist Fel­low­ship, which pays stipends and pro­vides free rent.

“There’s no fixed bud­get” for Tulsa Re­mote, Le­vit said. For now, it’s a one-year pi­lot pro­gram, but the over­whelm­ing re­sponse means it could be ex­tended, he said. More than 8,000 peo­ple have com­pleted lengthy on­line ap­pli­ca­tions.

Ben Winch­ester, a ru­ral de­mog­ra­pher at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Ex­ten­sion Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Vi­tal­ity, said peo­ple who leave small towns to at­tend col­lege often want to re­turn to their home­towns when they reach their 30s and 40s. For many of them, the chal­lenge is find­ing a house.

Har­mony, Min­nesota, is an ex­am­ple. The Great Re­ces­sion led to a years­long halt of con­struc­tion in Har­mony, pop­u­la­tion 1,080. In 2014, the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment au­thor­ity started of­fer­ing in­cen­tives of $5,000 to $12,000 to build houses, depend­ing on the ex­pected tax­able value of the build­ing.

Har­mony Mayor Steve Don­ney ac­knowl­edged that the pro­gram “was very slow to take off.” So far, the town has paid out about $62,750 and has com­mit­ted to pay­ing out an­other $20,000 for eight build­ings. Last year, for the first time, the town has col­lected some new prop­erty tax rev­enue — about $2,200.

"I’m a 100 per­cent be­liever in the project. So far, it’s work­ing,” Don­ney said. “It has en­cour­aged peo­ple to build, and new peo­ple are a bonus.”

“One of my ques­tions as mayor is, ‘When do we stop this?’” Don­ney said. But, he said, other mem­bers of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment au­thor­ity re­spond, “Why would we stop this?”

Mar­quette, in cen­tral Kansas, also turned to hous­ing in­cen­tives after fail­ing to at­tract busi­nesses.

“Every town is look­ing to bring in jobs to their small town. You might as well beat your head against a wall,” said Steve Piper, the for­mer long­time mayor. “We took the op­po­site ap­proach. We thought: Bring the peo­ple and tell them to find their own job.” Mar­quette is within com­mut­ing dis­tance of the larger cities Salina, McPher­son and Hutchin­son.

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Tak­ing the lift up Stowe Moun­tain in Ver­mont.

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