Trading on the state’s rich outdoor recreation resources, the Ascend WV remote worker relocation incentive program offers a nice package of perks to people who can bring their jobs to West Virginia. Morgantown is its first site—and we all stand to benefit.
If you could keep your job and live anywhere at all, where would you live? It’s a question more people than ever are asking themselves. Employers and employees learned how to work from home in 2020 out of necessity, but in 2021 they know that remote work is not only possible—it can be preferable. By some estimates, almost half of salaried and professional employees can now do their jobs over the internet.
The number of people who “telecommuted” pre-pandemic, as we called it back then? It’ll be double that, post-pandemic. Untethered from brick and mortar offices, these emancipated employees can live anywhere they can get online. And now WVU’s Brad & Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (Smith OEDC), in partnership with the state of West Virginia, is betting a lot of them would like to live where they find their vacation fun—where the raw, real outdoor adventures they usually savor during their weeks off are close by any day of the week.
Launched on April 12, the Ascend WV remote worker relocation incentive program invites these newly free agents to consider bringing their jobs to West Virginia—in this initial stage, to Morgantown—and it offers support to help them get here and plug in. West Virginia is not the only state vying for this digital workforce—luring remote workers is just one aspect of the “Zoom boom,” the unexpected ways the pandemic is changing the economy.
But here’s the kicker: Ascend WV leverages data showing that towns all across West Virginia sit close to as many outdoor adventure opportunities as high-profile outdoor meccas like Asheville, North Carolina, and Boulder, Colorado—and a greater variety of those adventures than most. It’s a new way for Morgantown to think about itself, and it’s a point that sells to the kinds of energetic, independent people who make great friends and neighbors in any town they choose to call home.
Morgantown has the youth and the vibrancy that come with a college town. It’s got the business development that a college town spurs. It’s got a pulse. And we basically have a trifecta of outdoor recreation with great paddling, great climbing, and great trails all close by. Morgantown is an outdoor town that doesn’t know it yet.Danny Twilley, assistant dean of the Smith OEDC.
LIve here & bring your job with you
The Ascend WV concept is simple: People who can take their jobs anywhere they want are invited to apply for a package of support that helps them relocate and resettle in West Virginia—in this first part of the program, in Morgantown.
It builds on the success of similar initiatives—most famously, Tulsa Remote. In 2018, the Tulsa, Oklahoma–headquartered George Kaiser Family Foundation offered $10,000 to anyone who would move to Tulsa for one year. It had never been done—no one knew what would happen. The program got more than 1,000 applicants on the first day. The point, of course, was not to host nomads for just one year, but to attract long-term, contributing members of Tulsa society. And in fact, Tulsa Remote has drawn more than 600 new residents and retained 90 percent past their first year.
Similar programs have sprung up since in cities like Savannah, Georgia, and Tucson, Arizona, and in states including Hawaii and Vermont.
Programs differ in their offerings. Most include a financial incentive to offset the cost and inconvenience of uprooting and starting over, and Ascend WV will pay $12,000 over two years, with $10,000 spread across 12 monthly installments and $2,000 payable to anyone who stays for the entire two years.
But it’s not a recruitment program, Twilley says—it’s a retention program. What makes a relocation incentive program work isn’t the money; it’s the programming that helps participants feel their new community’s charm and find by the end of it that they’ve put down roots. Here’s the Ascend WV package as it’s configured for Morgantown, laid out at ascendwv.com.
A Networking Hub with Co-Working Space
Ascend WV is partnering with the Vantage
Ventures business development initiative at
WVU’s John Chambers College of Business
and Economics to offer co-working space to
program participants for the initial cohort.
The partnership with the business college
runs deep, explains Smith OEDC Program
Coordinator Paris Winfrey. For participants
who are new to remote work, the college is
developing a remote worker certification program that will coach them in time management and other skills needed to succeed in an independent work environment.
Ascend WV participants will also have access to the college’s and university’s considerable entrepreneurship support resources. For a participant who has aspirations of starting a business, this is an invaluable perk. The co-working space will serve as home base, the place where participants will access the program’s services and make connections with nonprofits and activities across town. “We want it to be a community hub, a place where they come not only to work but also to socialize and network,” says Winfrey
Outdoor REcreation Programming
All types of recreational activities will be
organized through the Ascend WV hub:
“group bike rides on the rail-trail or at White
Park, paddleboards on the Mon or a kayak
day on Cheat Lake, weekend getaways in
West Virginia’s best spots,” Winfrey says.
This is a high-quality service: The Smith
OEDC grew out of Adventure WV, a WVU education programming across the state and nation and internationally, so this organization knows how to lead trips, and staff members have experienced the personal growth and meaningful relationships that often follow. “We want to help participants connect with the state and with others in the community, really learn to fall in love with this place,” Winfrey says. Participants will have access to a free gear rental library, and outfitters across the state are participating in a Free Outdoor Recreation package that includes off-roading, rafting, ziplining, golf, and more!
It’s this outdoor adventure component that organizers believe makes Ascend WV stand out among remote worker relocation incentive programs.
This way of thinking is coded right into the DNA of the Smith OEDC, as you can see in the name: Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative. The group aims to leverage the state’s natural environment to boost its health and economy. To ground this work, staff crunched some numbers in 2020 to understand just how unique the natural environment here is.
Authentic Outdoor Adventure Close to home
Here in Morgantown, we live close to the great outdoors. Any day after work, if we want to, we can have a relaxing bike ride or a challenging one, solve a boulder problem, paddle flatwater or rapids, cast a line, or hike through deep woods or to a scenic overlook.
It’s a satisfying, adventure-filled way to live. But isn’t it like that in most rural places?
In a word, no.
Last year, the Smith OEDC undertook a large-scale asset-mapping effort to characterize and compare the access that residents of cities across the U.S. have to exciting outdoor recreation experiences.
“We were thinking, younger people are valuing experiences over things, and they’re considering where they live first before they consider their job,” says the Smith OEDC’s Twilley—this was pre-pandemic, pre–Zoom boom, but timely. “How do we incorporate outdoor recreation into their lives? Instead of, ‘I go there once a year,’ how can it be, ‘I do this during my lunch break,’ or after work, or on the weekend? We started looking at what was within 30, 60, 90 minutes’ drive of places—and that’s when we realized how much we had in close proximity right here.”
For Morgantown, the data showed that we sit as close to as many paddling runs, climbing routes, and biking trails as places that might surprise you.
Shredding it in central appalachia
Morgantown rivals some of the best outdoor towns in the country for access to high-octane adventures.
“So, if you’re in Denver, you have to drive an hour to get to the good stuff,” Twilley says. “Asheville, it’s one of the iconic outdoor towns—and when you compare our outdoor resources to theirs, we can compete at a very high level.”
From Morgantown, a quick drive gets paddlers to dozens of runs, and an hour and a half reaches nearly 100. Did you know we’re a rock climbing powerhouse? Climbers have 1,200 climbing routes and boulder problems within an hour’s drive and 1,400 within an hour and a half, a lifetime of challenges. And mountain bikers can find 100 trails close to home and 200 just a little farther out.
It’s a whole new lens on Morgantown’s natural assets—what we have, recreation-wise, and what we can develop. “You can’t build rock. You can’t build whitewater,” Twilley says. “A lot of other places don’t have the rock, don’t have the whitewater, so they’ve had to build trails. We have trails, too, and we can build more.” The Smith OEDC has already hired a renowned trail builder to do just that.
With a little work on the trail side, our paddling, climbing, and biking taken together will rival any town that’s considered an outdoors haven.
Brad Smith, Huntington, West Virginia, native, former Intuit CEO, and a driving force behind
WVU’s Brad & Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative
All that, plus college-town Dyanism
Even without billing itself as a premier outdoor recreation destination, Morgantown’s culturally rich lifestyle has made it one of the fastest-growing towns in central Appalachia.
Great dining? Check. As home to a flagship state university, we’ve long had the variety of ethnic restaurants you’d expect to find in a much bigger city, plus everything from food trucks to steakhouses to farm-to-table fare. Craft beer scene? Check and double check: two breweries in town, plus a brewpub for a third. West Virginia–brewed beer is on tap everywhere, and local kombucha and hard cider can be found, too.
The arts: The popularity of the visual arts is seen in the monthly Arts Walks downtown, an annual Mo’town Studio Tour, Handcrafted Cooperative artisan markets, and frequent rotations at galleries. Public art is supported through the city’s active mural program, and fine arts are represented through exhibits and programs at the Art Museum of WVU. Performing arts are alive and well here, too. Iconic venues ranging from a historical nightclub and a riverside amphitheater to a restored vaudeville stage and the university’s concert theater host local and touring music, dance, and theater performances in all genres.
What about shopping? Morgantown has long supported a healthy mix of independent shops. But since it was named a Metropolitan Statistical Area after the 2000 census, national chains have increasingly located here as well, including Barnes & Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and T.J. Maxx. That trend is continuing with the development at WestRidge Commons on the northwest side of town: Menard’s set up shop there over the winter, and Bass Pro Shops will follow later this year. Burlington, HomeGoods, PetSmart, Ross Dress for Less, and Shoe Carnival are all on track to open in 2022.
Morgantown’s growth can also be seen in the recent addition of an Aquatic Center and track
and field facilities at the Mylan Park recreational complex, says Russell Rogerson, president and CEO of the Morgantown Area Partnership economic development organization. “We’re
working on expanding the Morgantown Industrial Park, we’re launching the runway extension at the airport and creating a 90-acre commerce park. There’s WVU’s construction of a new business school and the growth of WVU Medicine—we continue to grow and have opportunities ahead for years to come.”
Add great outdoor recreation to all of that, and it’s a winning mix. “So few of the outdoors-centered towns are anchored by a major land grant institution,” Twilley says. “Youth, business, outdoors—it’s the recipe.”
Ascend WV expects to invite up to 50 applicants to Morgantown soon—by mid-summer and to use the experience here to shape roll-outs soon to come in Lewisburg and Shepherdstown.
Who will be chosen? “We want people who value community,” Twilley says. “People who want to help make us better and be engaged in a positive manner, and people
who love the outdoors.” We may start seeing newcomers biking the trails, attending
neighborhood association potlucks, and contributing at City Council meetings by fall.
Fifty new residents is not a big influx for a town of 30,000-ish, but 50 engaged people in a year, or several years in a row, are likely to be noticed. Will it change Morgantown? “These folks will bring more to the community than just a job,” Rogerson says. “They’re going to bring ideas and entrepreneurialism and innovation with them. They’re going to add value and diversity to our thought processes as we continue to strive to become a better place.”
Twilley likes to quote WVU Chambers College of Business and Economics Dean Javier Reyes on the attractiveness of an outdoor lifestyle economy: “Javier says, ‘I’m not an outdoors person, but I love what you all bring to the table because you demand good food, beer and wine, shopping, and culture, and it’s all integrated into the fabric of the community.’” If he’s right, we might expect many more good things to follow.
So if you could keep your job and live anywhere at all, where would you live? There are good arguments for staying right here.