Pandemic Sweetens Lure of Smaller Cities’ Relocation Incentives
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Aaron Miller’s title and to correct the spelling of Grant Bumgarner's name.
TULSA — Moving from New York City to Tulsa, Oklahoma, might seem an unlikely choice for a young African American scientist like Christopher Bland. His new home is known as an old oil boomtown—and as the site of a massacre of Black residents 100 years ago.
But life in his sixth-story West Harlem walkup was starting to wear on him, just as remote work in the pandemic freed him to live anywhere and still conduct his pediatric health environmental research for a Manhattan hospital. And Tulsa’s new artistic vibe reminded him of Athens, Georgia, where he studied at the University of Georgia.
“I wasn’t getting that life that I loved and appreciated,” said Bland, 28. “It’s nice there in New York, but it was expensive. It was cramped. Then came the COVID lockdowns, and I was stuck up there with my roommate. I got tired of being uncomfortable.” He now has luxuries he could only imagine in Manhattan: his own place, an elevator, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer.
“If I could find that in New York, it would have been $4,000 a month, so four times what I’m paying here,” said Bland. “It’s a win-win situation. I get to come here and experience a new place and maybe fall in love with it and stay.”
The $10,000 Tulsa dangled as an incentive didn’t hurt, either. Movers such as Bland, who relocated in November 2020, are giving some hope to inland and rural cities looking for more residents and economic vibrancy.
Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to makemymove.com, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.
So far, many areas have failed to bring in significant numbers of remote workers despite offering incentives. Most don’t have the staff and money backing the Tulsa Remote program, which is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Even so, smaller areas have found advantages in remote worker programs. Natchez, Mississippi, a river town north of New Orleans where the population has been declining for decades, saw home sales double to 700 in the past year, even though only 12 people have used a $6,000 incentive for remote workers, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc. Economic Development, which operates the Shift South remote worker incentive plan.
“I believe the Shift South publicity helped that number get to 700,” Russ said. “It was a chance to tell people, people who would never have heard of Natchez, that it was a good place to live.”
Tulsa’s program is often cited as a rare success story. It moved 100 people in its first year, 2019, and despite the pandemic it projects another 950 moves this year. Along with cash incentives up to $10,000 for living in Tulsa at least a year, the program offers a free trip to check out the area and intensive social networking in person and online.
The program has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, which found early struggles to recruit Black men, who tended to drop out before visiting Tulsa. However, the study’s author, Prithwiraj Choudhury, said in an email that the program “has had great success in attracting a diverse population of remote workers.”
A new study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found the new workers created almost $14 in new local labor income—a measure of earnings by employees and business owners—for every dollar spent on relocating workers, adding $62 million in earnings by the workers themselves and the jobs created to support them in 2021.
Oklahoma leaders, noting the program’s success, enacted a law in April offering state funding to other cities that want to follow Tulsa's lead. At least one city, Stillwater, has signed up. But some legislators say the programs won’t work without better internet access.
“We will need to further expand rural broadband to make this program the success it promises to be,” said Rep. Kevin Wallace, a Republican from a district near Oklahoma City who co-sponsored the new law.
Many workers who moved to Tulsa say they were put at ease by an initial visit, paid for by Tulsa Remote, during which they met people like themselves who had moved and had similar interests.
“Everybody is like a family here. It’s a community full of friends,” said Bland.
For Maria Kim, who moved to Tulsa in March after working remotely as a copywriter from Colombia, South Korea and Turkey, the friendships were a major selling point. Tulsa Remote offered her access to Slack channels with social and work discussions for participants.
“I spent days reading these conversations and I got even more excited because the only downside I had from traveling alone was this idea of community,” Kim said. “Hopping around different countries, making friends on the fly, I had missed out on the longer lasting connections.”
She now works with some of her new Tulsa friends at a creative services startup. The $10,000 incentive helped her cushion the highs and lows of freelancing while working on the startup, she said, a career change after her longtime stint as a bartender in Washington, D.C.
Not all inland cities can replicate Tulsa’s success, which depended on a large existing population—more than a million people live in the Tulsa area—along with foundation grants devoted to developing a tech center with amenities such as a new riverfront park with elaborate playgrounds and a lodge-style public workspace.
“A lot of these [other] places have one staff member. We have 20,” said Grant Bumgarner, an alumni experience manager at Tulsa Remote.
He said a large part of his job is introducing potential residents to Tulsa’s revamped arts district.
“Tulsa is inherently undervalued. It has almost no place in the national consciousness. People’s first impression is either ‘podunk’ or nothing,” said Bumgarner. “I have yet to bring someone here who wasn’t impressed.”
If Tulsa has been in the news lately, it’s because of the centenary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when White rioters burned and looted a thriving African American business district and residential neighborhood known as Black Wall Street.
Organizers of Tulsa Remote and its sister organizations in the George Kaiser Family Foundation said they want to make sure the new professionals don’t displace local blue-collar communities through gentrification.
“There hasn’t been a tech boomtown yet that did not displace people. We’re going to change that. We don’t want to be the next Austin—we think of Austin and San Francisco as cautionary tales,” said Aaron Miller, head of partnerships for inTulsa, an organization that tries to attract talented workers and growing businesses to Tulsa.
Another George Kaiser Family Foundation initiative called BuildInTulsa is specifically looking for Black residents willing to train in tech fields and arranging classes and funding from venture capital groups, said development lead Ashli Sims. “We’re trying to develop and connect homegrown Black talent,” Sims said.
Though many cities report success drawing remote workers, with or without incentives, rates of moving overall reached historic lows between mid-2020 and 2021, according to the latest census figures available. Some experts see a pent-up demand for moves delayed by pandemic uncertainty about remote work and new virus variants.
The pandemic did lower “barriers to exit” for high-cost cities, said Andrew Mikula, who analyzed remote worker trends earlier this year for the free-market think tank Pioneer Institute in Boston. But that doesn’t mean every small town and rural area will succeed in getting those workers, he said.
Some rural areas near big cities found they didn’t need incentives to get people interested. Berrien County, Michigan, said a flood of new residents from Chicago bid up home prices in the lakefront resort area.
That popularity weakened a $15,000 incentive to remote workers to buy a home.
“People were being asked to pay $50,000 over asking price, so our incentives weren’t as effective in that kind of housing market,” said Rob Cleveland, president of the Cornerstone Alliance, the nonprofit sponsoring Move to Michigan.
Another program, Remote Shoals in the Muscle Shoals area of northwestern Alabama, has drawn 66 remote workers and family members with a total income of $6.3 million, starting before the pandemic in mid-2019, said Mackenzie Cottles, marketing specialist for the Shoals Economic Development Authority.
Topeka, Kansas, in the eastern part of the Kansas City metro area, has drawn 54 families with incentives since 2020, including two tech workers from California who now run start-ups in the city, said Bob Ross, a vice president of Greater Topeka Partnership. The newcomers weren’t dissuaded by a hot housing market where homes sell above asking price.
“The incentives definitely greased the wheels and put us on the map, but the value Topeka offers is now getting out there and people are discovering, incentive or not, that you can live better here,” Ross said.
Another Tulsa transplant, 36-year-old Jeremy Wade, grew up in Oklahoma and didn’t think he’d go back after a career as a bank regulator, business teacher and entrepreneur that took him to Denver, San Francisco and finally India.
When the delta variant hit, life in India became untenable. “It was a devastating time. I had colleagues at the university, friends and acquaintances who passed away. The hospitals were overrun. And the U.S. Embassy was alerting us to go home,” Wade said.
He and his wife, Connecticut-born and of Indian descent, decided to move to Tulsa. They made friends at regular socials conducted by Tulsa Remote and he used the Slack channels to find people sharing his interest in playing basketball, volleyball and kickball in his spare time.
“It’s remarkable how much Tulsa has changed since I was here. I thought coming from Delhi, which is very dynamic, we might find it too slow here, but it’s much more dynamic than in was in terms of things to do. You can feel it. The momentum is in the right direction.”