Small towns offer money to attract teleworkers


Last year, like many Americans, Matt Fahrenbruch suddenly found himself doing his job from home. He lived in Topeka, Kansas, where he audited programs for the state legislature.

As remote working continued during the pandemic, he began to realize that if he could work from home, then home could be where he wanted. He and his wife had often thought of moving to the Upper Midwest, where Fahrenbruch, 39, had attended college.

“It was just a question of, ‘How are we going to end up here?’ Because we both have professional degrees, ”he said. “We are talking about regions that have much smaller economies. “

Earlier this year, they saw a good job for her as a town planner in the town of Bemidji, with a population of around 15,000, in far north Minnesota.

He then read on a program that offers $ 2,500 to teleworkers who move there. So he presented the idea to his boss. He could telecommute for his job in Topeka from Bemidji, Minnesota.

Matt Fahrenbruch and his family moved to Bemidji, Minnesota, from Topeka, Kansas, in July. (Dan Kraker / MPR)

“And they say, ‘Alright, let’s try this,'” he recalls. “We want to keep you, you know, we want to keep our talent. Let’s try this as a pilot program. ‘”

In July, he moved to Bemidji with his wife and 2-year-old child. And after a three-month trial period, his teleworking job is now permanent.

The Fahrenbruchs are one of 22 families who have so far qualified for the relocation program, known as 218 Relocate (a telephone area code set in northern Minnesota). It is managed by the economic development organization Great Bemidji, with funding from a local foundation and the regional Internet and telephone provider.

The program is one of many programs across the country, from northern arkansas To West Virginia, where communities pay people to settle there. Many of them are from rural areas that praise their slower pace of life, easy access to the outdoors, and often cheaper housing.

Ben winchester studying rural migration at the University of Minnesota. With fewer people tethered to offices in big cities, he said more and more people are moving in search of what he calls a “work-life” balance.

“Work-life balance”

“And I say it that way because I think we’ve moved from a work-life balance to a work-life balance,” he said.

This is a big part of introducing Bemidji to newcomers; it has always been a vacation spot at a resort or a cabin on a lake in the Northwoods.

Bemidji also offers a all-fiber broadband network – something that even some big cities do not have.

“The opportunity is now here for them to stay here if they choose to change their lifestyle,” said Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji. “And I think we’re in a unique time right now for this message to resonate.”

The iconic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox by Bemidji. The city promotes the quality of life in its small town and its outdoor amenities to encourage people to relocate and bring their work with them. (Dan Kraker / MPR)

For cities like Bemidji, new residents contribute to the tax base. They also add talent to the local workforce, from children to schools and volunteers to the community at large.

But as rural communities roll out their welcome mats, researchers like Winchester say a major challenge they face is welcoming newcomers to places where locals are sometimes resistant to change.

This is why in Bemidji, the 218 Relocate program connects newcomers with locals with common interests through what is called the Community concierge program.

Sarah Sanchez, who moved from Phoenix to Bemidji in the middle of winter – and in the midst of the pandemic – said it saved her life.

“It was very difficult because everything is closed,” she said. “How do you connect with the community when everyone is pulling their distance? “

Sanchez works remotely as a grants manager for a Phoenix nonprofit, and her husband is a youth director at a church in Bemidji. She left many parents in Arizona. But she and her husband were matched with a local family, and she said they got along well.

“And for me, it was really like the part where I felt like there were people here that I really connect with and who I have a lot in common with,” she said. . Because of that experience, she added, “I can really see myself establishing roots here and building relationships.”

Attracting and retaining newcomers like Sanchez is especially important for rural communities with aging populations who lose young people every year to education and jobs in big cities.


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