CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A program offering $20,000 in cash and incentives for remote workers to move to West Virginia has drawn dozens of newcomers and is now taking applications for a second host city.
Thousands of people inquired about the opportunity, and 53 new residents from as far away as Germany are being welcomed to the northern college town of Morgantown. Now the public-private program has launched a second phase, hoping to attract new permanent residents to Lewisburg, in the southeastern corner of the state, the state tourism office said in a news release Thursday.
The 2020 census found that West Virginia lost more of its residents than any other state in the past decade, and is now the only state with fewer residents than it had in 1950. Residents left as jobs in the coal, steel and other industries were eliminated. The nation’s second-largest coal producer, West Virginia has lost 56% of its coal mining jobs since 2009 as power plants turn toward renewable energy sources.
To begin to reverse the exodus, West Virginia is leveraging one of its most appealing assets, its “almost heaven” natural beauty, in direct appeals to outdoor enthusiasts whose jobs enable them to work from anywhere they choose.
Under the remote worker program, out-of-state participants who move to West Virginia will receive $12,000 along with annual passes to indulge in whitewater rafting, golf, rock climbing, horseback riding, skiing and ziplining. The full relocation package is valued at more than $20,000.
Morgantown is home to West Virginia University. On Saturdays when the football team plays home games, it easily balloons to the largest city in the state. Quintina Mengyan jumped at the opportunity to move from Chicago last month, bringing her boyfriend and her dog.
A client services director for online ticket seller Vivid Seats, Mengyan had noticed offerings for similar programs elsewhere, but was particularly attracted to an advertisement encouraging the move to West Virginia.
After so many months working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, it “just felt like the walls are closing in,” she said. “And it got to the point where I really had to rely on outdoor activities” to get out of her work space.
“That’s what kind of sprouted the idea,” she said. “I’m like ‘yeah, I’ll just apply for fun. Then I started thinking about it more seriously and I’m like ‘I think I’d really, really enjoy this.”
She’s now busy making plans to attend Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers games an hour’s drive north of Morgantown. She hopes to take a week off in October to explore West Virginia’s typically spectacular fall colors. And she’s already discovered that the state isn’t flat, like Chicago.
“We never realized how much a flat parking space was meant to be appreciated until now,” Mengyan said.
The 53 new residents come from 21 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. One of them is from Berlin. All share a love for the outdoors, but their fields of work vary widely, from health care to management, manufacturing and technology, the tourism office said. The greatest number are from California, and their average income is about $105,000. When families are included, the number of new residents is 110.
Because fewer than 1% of applicants were accepted for the Morgantown openings, the remote worker program is encouraging those who weren’t chosen in the first phase to apply again. And it’s offering a consolation prize: $2,500 in mortgage assistance to all 7,500 people who applied, if they decide to move to West Virginia anyway.
Over the next five years the program plans to welcome more than 1,000 new remote workers to the state.
Lewisburg, once voted America’s “Coolest Small Town,” has about 4,000 residents and is located near the state fairgrounds, within an hour of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Lewisburg is “the perfect spot to escape big-city life without sacrificing modern living,” state Tourism Director Chelsea Ruby said. “It’s a picture-perfect small town with a charming downtown, thriving arts scene, and accessible outdoor recreation.”