Priscilla Bergstrom and her husband decided to leave Denver, Colorado, after 30 years and move to a rural community with a slower pace of life, a lot of outdoor activities, and a fast internet connection. They settled on Bemidji, Minnesota, one of many smaller towns and rural communities that are beginning to employ incentives designed to lure remote workers just like the Bergstrom family to make them their new home. (Photo submitted)

Priscilla Bergstrom and her husband knew they were looking for a smaller community.

After living in the Denver area for more than 30 years, the couple started exploring options for relocating, particularly to a small, more rural area.

“We were looking for a smaller community with lots of outdoor activities and a small university, and, primarily, really great Internet service,” she said.

Bergstrom works in the healthcare quality industry as a remote worker, so Internet connectivity is crucial to her job.

While perusing the local newspaper, Bergstrom came across information about 218 Relocate, a recently launched program to attract remote workers to Bemidji, Minnesota, population 15,000. The program attracts remote workers through various incentives, including up to $2,500 in reimbursed expenses for moving; free co-working space; and access to a program connecting newcomers to established residents.

Similar trends are cropping up all over the country. While major cities, like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Topeka, Kansas, may have the most notoriety when it comes to remote worker incentive programs, smaller, more rural communities from Curtis, Nebraska, to Greensburg, Indiana, are taking note.

In some cases, the programs have been around even longer than the more well-known programs, but have gone dormant and are now resurging due to the effects of the pandemic and workers' interest in living outside large cities.

In the case of 218 Relocate, it wasn’t an attempt to replicate another community’s success, but instead capitalize on the connectivity that Bemidji has, Erin Echternach, assistant director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development, which runs the program, told Deesmealz.

“We were trying to come up with a program that really capitalizes on that fiber-optic Internet,” she said.

Since its launch at the beginning of February of 2021, 18 people have taken advantage of the program so far, with three more scheduled to receive the relocation grant by the end of October, Echternach said.

“We're really a regional hub for Northern Minnesota and people are just finding out about us,” she said. “And when they get here, they're surprised at what's here. But there are some that literally have thrown a dart at the map and they're like, oh, Bemidji, let's try it. They love it.”

For Bergstrom and her husband, who was able to relocate his job to Minnesota because he works for a global company, the opportunity for outdoor activities attracted them to the area. They also considered an incentive program in Northwest Arkansas, she said.

Greater Bemidji is piloting the program for two years, Echternach said. And so far they have been pleased. Program participants must physically move to Bemidji, she noted, but they are able to live within a 60-mile radius of Bemidji proper.

Bergstrom and her husband bought their house sight-unseen. They conducted video visits with a local realtor. The community also has a small art museum and a symphony, which the couple enjoys going to, as well as sporting events at the local university and various festivals.

Bergstrom noted that they have not lived through a winter in Minnesota, so they are preparing for that. “That's going to be a challenge,” she said.

She recommended that people who are interested in taking advantage of such relocation programs read through the local newspapers and magazines to get a feel for the community. Also, if homeownership is important, consider what the housing market is like in the new area.

In the case of rural communities, the incentive programs may differ from a big city. The urban remote programs tend to have large cash payments while the rural communities may offer more in the way of reimbursements or free land for development. For example, in Newton, Iowa, The Newton Housing Initiative, approved by the City Council in 2014, allows for a $10,000 cash incentive for homes valued at $190,000 or more. And in Kansas, the Rural Opportunity Zones program offers student loan repayment assistance or state income tax credit.

Such programs are not going to be successful in every community, said Emily Wornell, assistant professor of Research for the Center for Local and State Policy at Ball State University.

“It's going to be in the communities that have the kind of quality of life infrastructure already developed, or starting to be developed, that people are going to want to take advantage of,” she said, adding that a community that lacks a grocery store, for example, probably won’t be successful. “You might get somebody to want to do that. But the likelihood of that being successful enough in the community that it would change the community around is negligible.”

Many of the programs rely on workers who depend on broadband Internet access, and that can be an issue in rural communities, she added.

Communities also need to consider who they are attracting. A higher-income worker moving into a lower-income community may exacerbate already entrenched inequities.

Development for the existing population is just as important as attracting newcomers, Wornell said. “Because that is the kind of quality of investment that people are going to want to stay around for.”

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