‘Pay to move’ attracts people — not employers
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.
Taking the lift up Stowe Mountain in Vermont.