Almost heaven: West Virginia entices nature-loving remote workers

3 weeks ago 29
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Under the remote worker programme, out-of-state participants who move to West Virginia will receive $12,000 along with passes for a year to indulge in whitewater rafting, golf, rock climbing, horseback riding, skiing, ziplining and other activities.

West Virginia in the southeastern United States is joining the growing list of places recruiting remote workers — with a thrill-seeking twist.

A public-private programme launched Monday will try to lure outdoor enthusiasts to live in the rural state with enticements of cash and free passes for recreational destinations. The goal is to leverage one of West Virginia’s most appealing assets, its epic natural beauty, to stem the tide of population loss in the only US state that has fewer residents now than in 1950.

The new programme represents a more targeted effort than a bill proposed by Republican Governor Jim Justice for a massive income tax cut, which fell apart in the legislature just before the regular session ended Saturday.

Under the remote worker programme, out-of-state participants who move to West Virginia will receive $12,000 along with passes for a year to indulge in whitewater rafting, golf, rock climbing, horseback riding, skiing, ziplining and other activities. The full relocation package is valued at more than $20,000.

‘We want to give folks the opportunity to escape big cities,’ West Virginia Tourism Cabinet Secretary Chelsea Ruby said. ‘In West Virginia, there are no crowded places, long commutes or traffic jams. There’s just plenty of places to put down roots and explore the great outdoors.’ [File: Jonathan Drew/AP Photo]“We want to give folks the opportunity to escape big cities,” state Tourism Cabinet Secretary Chelsea Ruby said in an interview with The Associated Press. “In West Virginia, there are no crowded places, long commutes or traffic jams. There’s just plenty of places to put down roots and explore the great outdoors.”

Several other states and US cities have launched a variety of remote worker programmes, including a popular project hatched by a billionaire philanthropist in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2018.

The coronavirus pandemic sent the work-from-home concept into the stratosphere over the past year with tens of millions of employees temporarily or permanently pushed out of their offices. West Virginia officials are counting on that to continue.

Participants whose employers are based elsewhere will be given access to workspaces set up in three communities selected earlier this year as remote networking hubs. These hubs will connect them with entrepreneurs and state business leaders.

“What an opportunity this great state has,” Governor Justice said at a news conference Monday. “As far as the potential, it’s unbelievable.”

An ‘I Love Mountains’ bumper sticker adorns the car of Jordan Lovejoy, a graduate student who recently returned to her hometown of Pineville, West Virginia to help gather examples of the local dialect for an audio database being created at West Virginia University [Allen G Breed/AP]The programme is now accepting applications for the first 50 openings in Morgantown, home to West Virginia University (WVU) along the Pennsylvania border. Applicants also will be given continuing education opportunities through WVU, Ruby said.

There will be openings later this year for remote worker spots in Shepherdstown in the state’s eastern panhandle, and for Lewisburg in the southeastern corner of the state. Organisers will consider ways later to expand it to other communities.

Ruby said the message is similar to what the state sells in its tourism promotion campaign.

“Except, instead of saying ‘come here for a weekend and come here for a week’, we’re saying, come here permanently,” she said.

The programme was kick-started in October by a $25m gift to WVU from Brad Smith, the executive chairman of Intuit’s board of directors, and his wife, Alys, for an outdoor economic development collaborative.

Brad Smith, who grew up in Kenova, West Virginia, said he studied remote worker programmes in Tulsa, Vermont and in an area of northwestern Alabama known as the Shoals, to see how the concept might work in West Virginia.

He found that successful programmes have essential services such as broadband and affordable housing; vibrant communities with dining options and an arts and entertainment scene that draws in younger people; and something unique to attract them.

In West Virginia, that distinctive flavour is the outdoors.

Historically a state that relied on coal mining as its main industry, West Virginia has also increasingly attracted outdoors-loving tourists eager to enjoy its natural beauty, like this sunset in the historic coal city of Bluefield [File: Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo]Some of the state’s more popular destinations include the nation’s newest national park in the New River Gorge, trails and cliffs at Seneca Rocks, and several resorts with both golf courses and ski areas.

Brad Smith expects those attractions to sell themselves.

“I think if they’ve had the chance to do the things that I had the chance to do growing up, they’re not going to want to go anywhere else,” he said.

The announcement coincided with the 50th anniversary of the release of John Denver’s song Take Me Home, Country Roads.

“The gates to ‘Almost Heaven’ are now open,” Smith said, referencing the lyrics of Denver’s popular song.

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