Kate Yanov was working in Singapore last November when she heard about the program. A 38-year-old “digital nomad”—she runs her own company, Property Protect, that offers automatic protection for Airbnb hosts—she was looking to move back to the U.S. with her husband, settle down, and have kids when friends and family started sending her links to a story about Tulsa Remote. Applicants could receive $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and live there for at least a year.
Carrie Hawkins, 37, a Cisco customer-experience designer and remote worker, had been living in an Airstream trailer with her husband, Zach, and their dog, Kyla, when other office-free colleagues told her about Tulsa Remote. After three years and 48 states in a trailer, they were also looking to get off the road.
Ron Walz, 64, who works in IT for Wells Fargo, had worked remotely for a decade, and, along with his wife, moved to Atlanta to be closer to his daughter. He was visiting his son, who lived in Oklahoma City, last fall when he heard about a program that would pay him to move to Tulsa.
Today, all three new Tulsans have not only lived in the Oklahoma city for months, but all own houses (Hawkins’s is a modern home designed by local organic architect Bruce Goff) and plan to stay for years. They’re all part of what’s proving to be a successful first year for Tulsa Remote, a program funded by a grant from the local George Kaiser Family Foundation that’s trying a new tactic to build and energize the local economy.
Instead of trying to, say, lure a corporation to open a new office and bring jobs and wealth, the strategy is to create a program that welcomes remote workers and travelers with the hope that they can put down roots and add something interesting to the civic fabric. Think of it as an influencer program for urban relocation.
“They’re looking for people doing interesting things with their life, who have interesting stories and have started interesting businesses,” says Yanov. “This is about finding people who are very into trying new things.” Including living in Oklahoma.
A new way to spark local growth
While many mid-size cities in the U.S. are in the midst of a renaissance—due to a combination of renewed urban development, new business opportunities, and affordability—others are still hoping to kick off that renaissance (see the competition to host Amazon HQ2) by finding new opportunities as the manufacturing workforce shrinks and the population ages.
Most commonly, increasing opportunity has meant cities paying for jobs via corporate incentives. Tulsa Remote is taking a slightly different route. The program gives $10,000 to winning applicants, as well as membership to 36 Degrees North, a local coworking space; housing assistance; and access to special events, speaking engagements, and community-building get-togethers.
Not everyone has the freedom to change cities without getting a new job, but the program does sound promising to the growing, well-paid group of remote workers, says Aaron Bolzle, Tulsa Remote’s executive director. A quarter of the roughly 4 million remote workers in the U.S. make more than $100,000 a year, compared to just 7 percent of the total in-office workforce, and 13 percent of those remote workers are remote full-time. New Census Bureau data found that 1 in 20 workers now usually work from home, making telework the third most popular “commuting” method in the U.S., just ahead of public transit.
“People tend to focus on the $10,000,” Bolzle says. “That’s just one part of the program, and easy to understand. That just covers the cost of relocation, and removes the barriers and complexities of moving here. They’re highly in-demand people, and we’re showing them that Tulsa is a good place to work. We’re here to promote community integration.”
Yanov agrees. She’s lived in Tulsa for just three and a half months, and already bought a home in a neighborhood called the Heights, just eight blocks from downtown. The community interaction, both at events and in 36 Degrees, has made the transition much easier.
“I’ve moved all over; you rent an apartment, maybe meet your neighbor, and then you go to work and the gym and that’s your circle for a couple of months,” she says. “This has been a lot quicker. We never would have met so many people if we moved to Phoenix.”
Bringing the tribe together
According to Bolzle, Tulsa Remote has been a big success thus far. The program, which launched in November 2018, originally planned to welcome 25 applicants, but after getting more than 10,000 applications, they decided to accept 100. Since the spring, 70 have moved to Tulsa, and a dozen have already bought houses.
Of course, the program doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Tulsa has benefited from years of growth, development, placemaking, and other moves that have gotten national attention, such as the opening of the Gathering Place, a huge riverfront park.
Part of what participants of Tulsa Remote say has made the decision to move to this city of 400,000 so easy has been the way the program helps them tap into what makes the city unique and authentic. Yanov mentions taking an tour about the city’s wealth of Art Deco architecture, diverse cuisine, and even the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the nation’s worst incidents of racial violence.
Hawkins decided to trade in her Airstream in part because of the networking opportunities in Tulsa. As the fourth person accepted into the program, she got used to greeting new members as they arrived. The monthly dinners that gathered members of the program helped everyone make friends, she says, and events with community leaders helped them start to feel rooted in Tulsa. Once, they were asked to submit questions to Mayor G.T. Bynum, who then gave the program a personalized speech.
Walz says that “you wouldn’t know we’re part of the first class” of the program, since it’s so well organized. After working from home, he relishes the chance to socialize at the coworking space, and already feels more comfortable here than he did in three years in Atlanta.
Yanov agrees that the coworking space offers more opportunities for connection than similar spaces in larger cities. At Tulsa networking events, members can actually talk and interact with everybody; she remembers going to similar events in San Francisco where you’d fight crowds of 500 or more just to say hi to someone.
Tulsa Remote is often cited alongside the Vermont program that gives $10,000 to every worker willing to work remotely. But that’s not a fair comparison, says Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI). For one thing, Vermont’s program applies to the entire state, without the concentrated community of the Tulsa Remote program. Dunne has spearheaded programs to create remote work and innovations hubs in rural locations, and he says one way to think about this kind of economic development work is as “rural urbanism”.
“Even if you loved living on a hundred-acre farm, which you can get for a fraction of the cost of a loft on the Lower East Side in New York, if you’re aspirational in your career, you want to work for a company making an impact, and perhaps an impact not just in your immediate location,” he says. “You want to be by other people doing different and impactful stuff; you want some density and interaction.”
The Tulsa program’s early numbers suggest that a key ingredient to the success of this type of program is storytelling.
“I’m having conversations with rural communities considering similar ideas, and the concern that I have with them doing incentive-based programs is there’s a negative perception of life in rural communities that will cause people not to apply,” says Tulsa Remote’s Bolzle. “They need to work on changing that perception. People are very brand-aware these days, I’m afraid. Smaller communities need to understand what the talented people they’re trying to attract are looking for.”
Banking on the growth of remote working
While the first full year of Tulsa Remote hasn’t even finished yet, Bolzle and others running the program are already thinking about how the program will evolve for 2020. The goal is to make it more efficient—to figure out how to build a bigger community engagement team to assist new arrivals. Program coordinators are already certain that remote workers are a bankable bet for Tulsa.
“We’re going to build a support network for remote workers in Tulsa, even those not in the program,” Bolzle says. “We want to continue to expand the program to bring even more people into Tulsa. Predicting how many remote workers [there will] be in the future is like predicting how many people would own a computer back in 1996. Our understanding of what computers do is so much different today than it was back then, and the same with remote working.”
Remote working can be seen as a technological and social shift, mirroring our new economic reality. As Bolzle see it, people used to move where the jobs are, but today, jobs move to where the talent is; why else did Amazon pick D.C. and New York? If you want to attract those people, and that business, building community is the way to go. If you want to influence business, then why not follow the influencers?
“We’re going to be ambassadors for the city,” says Yanov, “whether we’re here for a few years or decades.”