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New York Times
May 3, 2021

Jennifer Hill Booker has spent much of her professional life on the road. Ms. Booker, 45, a chef and entrepreneur, is the author of two cookbooks, and her travels on the lecture circuit have taken her around the country — but always back to Atlanta, where she lived with her two children. Then, last year, with her daughters off at college, she realized there was nothing keeping her there. “I am an empty nester looking for that next stage in my life,” she said.

Last winter, as the pandemic kept most Americans confined to their homes and flattened local economies, she learned that the Northwest Arkansas Council had launched a program offering select remote workers $10,000 and a free bicycle (the region has 322 miles of biking trails) if they relocated there within six months.

Ms. Booker had been to the area a few times and found the budding restaurant scene exciting, so she decided to give it a shot. “The $10,000 would give me an opportunity to put down a down payment on a small little bachelorette pad,” she said. “I also like that the program introduces you to other transplants, plus people who are already residents of northwest Arkansas. They can tell me where to shop, where to eat, where to worship.”

Nearly 30,000 people applied for the Life Works Here initiative, said Nelson Peacock, president and chief executive of the Northwest Arkansas Council, with slots for only a few dozen in the first round of selections. Ms. Booker was one of the winners, and is preparing to move this summer to Springdale, a small city outside Fayetteville, home to the University of Arkansas and about 85,000 residents. She’ll have to stay for at least a year as part of the program, which is fine with her. “Seeing people who are so excited to welcome me into the community, it’s like, I want to go there,” she said.

The Fayetteville region — including Bentonville, best known as the home of Walmart’s global headquarters — is one of several smaller metro areas and states across the country, from Georgia to Hawaii, trying to lure high-net-worth workers who can increasingly do their jobs remotely. The idea is that they’ll shop in local stores and pay real estate taxes, but they won’t take jobs away from locals. For regional economic development organizations, it’s an effort to build communities with high skill sets to attract start-ups and larger companies in the future. For the migrating workers, it’s a chance to try out an up-and-coming place alongside other newcomers.

Mr. Peacock said the program has been overwhelmed with interest. “We had 29,000 people apply for our first round, from every state and also multiple countries around the world,” he said, including James Beard-nominated chefs and Emmy Award-winning artists. “We never expected this response. The problem was figuring out how to choose.”

The council, with philanthropic assistance from the Walton Family Foundation, currently has $1 million set aside for the program. “We’re looking at awarding multiple dozens of people,” Mr. Peacock said. “We aren’t sure exactly how far the money will stretch.”

Though that money is intended to spur the local economy, some area residents argue that it’s being spent in the wrong place, especially as Arkansas continues to live under a public-health emergency order.

“I could probably get a lot of my life together with $10,000,” said Justin Ratliff, 31, a Fayetteville resident who has been a vocal opponent of the initiative. “When they announced it, it was the thing everybody was talking about. It made a stir.”

As these initiatives have picked up steam around the country, so have their detractors, who push back against the idea of giving much-needed financial assistance to prosperous out-of-towners.

“The money can be rerouted to help people who are struggling,” Mr. Ratliff said. “This program is spitting in the face of people who are already here and doing the best they can. They are graduating from university and getting degrees.”

He said he understood that the goal was to attract prized talent to the region, but he rejected the notion that people should be paid to move there. “We have more and more people moving here without the incentive,” he said. “The town has expanded so much in the past few years just from people moving here.” (Indeed, the Northwest Arkansas Council estimates that 32 new people moved to the region every day in most of 2019 and into early 2020.)

Mr. Peacock acknowledged the backlash, and pointed to the program’s long-term goals. “There were a few local organizations that felt we should be investing in some of the businesses that were being harmed during the pandemic,” he said. “I think they made a fair point, and we have invested in a lot of our small businesses, but what we are trying to focus on here is: What does the future look like?”

He added, “We don’t need any individuals to move here. We need the people working in the right types of industries.”

In Georgia, the city of Savannah is aiming specifically for tech professionals. Last June, the Savannah Economic Development Authority announced that it would award $2,000 to selected tech workers who committed to living in the city, Georgia’s third-largest, for at least two years. Applicants had to have at least three years of work experience, and move from a destination at least 60 miles from City Hall. “We don’t want to steal from our neighbors,” said Jen Bonnett, who oversees the program.

City officials consider the Savannah Technology Workforce Incentive a chance to import residents who might one day build Savannah into a tech hub. “When Covid hit, we thought this was a unique opportunity to get the right people with skills here, so when the world opens up again, we will have more skilled labor in our community,” Ms. Bonnett said. “If the next tech company wants to move here and hire 30 people, we want to have people already here who can do the job.”

Those people are typically young and middle-tier economically — an age group the city felt it was missing. “It’s $2,000, which is not enough for recent graduates, but it’s also not for someone who wants to move a five-bedroom house from California to Savannah,” she said.

Thus far, she said, 26 recipients and their families have moved to Savannah under the program, including Bridget Overson, 41, who was living in Concord, N.H., and works in user engagement for Updater, a company that streamlines the moving process.

As the pandemic stretched on, Ms. Overson realized she was hungry for more space and warmer weather. “I had been to Savannah a few times on family vacations, and it’s a beautiful city,” she said. “The weather is great and the property values are amazing. It’s such an appealing environment: the parks, the trees, the nature, the history, the culture.”

She’s now living in a three-bedroom ranch with a big yard that costs less than her two-bedroom townhouse up north. The $2,000 didn’t make her decision — she probably would have moved anyway — but it felt like a present. “It cost me around $6,000 to move my things down here, so I was happy for the stipend for sure,” she said. “It just made it feel easier.”

Other programs have more short-term goals. At the end of November, a group of business and community leaders in Hawaii launched Movers and Shakas, which is designed to encourage professionals to live in their state for at least 30 consecutive days. Recipients receive a free plane ticket as well as discounted long-term hotel rates. In exchange, they must commit to 15 hours of community service each month mentoring local businesses and nonprofits, and participate in group activities where they learn about Hawaii’s culture and ecosystem.

The initial goal was simple: to replenish revenue for a state that lost countless tourism dollars in 2020. Beyond that, Movers and Shakas hopes its participants will provide needed guidance and skills to local professionals who might not have regular access to tech conferences, networking events or graduate courses.

“We talk a lot about brain drain, about people who go to the mainland for college and careers,” said Nicole Lim, the director of the program, who used to work for eBay out of San Francisco. “We hope to promote brain gain, where our locals can build professional collaborations.”

Ms. Lim hopes some recipients will stay in Hawaii long-term and help diversify the economy. But those who leave can serve as ambassadors for the state. “We want to create a sense of shared stewardship for Hawaii’s culture,” she said.

As in Arkansas, the local community isn’t entirely on board with the initiative, especially during the pandemic. “Certainly we are getting backlash, and it’s something we take super seriously,” Ms. Lim said. “Here in Hawaii, it’s a small community, and we care about our elders.” She said the program is following the state’s travel guidelines, including a 10-day quarantine or a pre-travel testing regime.

Ms. Lim said nearly 90,000 applications poured in for the Movers and Shakas program, which currently has 50 slots.

One of them went to Krist Wong-Yamamoto, 51, an Oahu native who moved to the mainland to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She has lived in the Salt Lake City area ever since, and now works as a corporate communications manager for JetBlue. She had always wanted to return home one day — her parents still live there, and she missed the lifestyle. But she couldn’t bring herself to take the needed steps.

“I looked at this like a trial,” she said. “I needed to understand how this would work and get a feel for what the lifestyle will be if I move back.” She spent a month networking and socializing with fellow participants and business leaders, to see if it could be a stimulating professional home for her. After completing the program, she said she was still interested in moving back home if her company would allow it.

For some cities, appealing to outside talent with development programs is nothing new — but the volume of interested applicants is. Tulsa Remote, a program that offers people $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Okla., for a year, started in the fall of 2018, but has seen a spike in demand during the pandemic. Of the nearly 800 people who have moved there as part of the program, 380 arrived last year. “We had 50,000 applicants in 2020,” said Ben Stewart, the executive director of Tulsa Remote. “We are more selective than Harvard.”

The program has no age or industry specifications; the main requirement is articulating why you want to call Tulsa home. While participants are required to stay for a year, the vast majority have remained after that deadline, Mr. Stewart said, adding that the program organizes regular events, including drive-in movies, cooking classes, historic tours and volunteer opportunities.

Alana Mbanza, 35, applied for the program mostly because she was looking to move somewhere new with a built-in community. “I moved to Chicago 10 years ago from a small town, and I really struggled to break into social networks,” she said. “But literally, two months into moving to Tulsa, I had enough friends to host a Super Bowl party.”

She moved into a cute brick house in Tulsa, and met some new friends on her first day in the city. “There was a street party, and I reached out to a few people on the Tulsa Remote Slack channel to see if anyone was going,” said Ms. Mbanza, a writer and educational leadership coach. “Those people are still my friends.”

Locals are, in turn, making friends with the transplants. “Everyone I have met has been really freaking cool,” said Darku Jarmola, 30, a DJ and program manager at a dance club in Tulsa. “One of them has even become one of my best friends.”

Still, he said he resented the notion that the city felt it had to import culture. “I have been throwing parties in Tulsa since 2008 and putting all my money into creating this culture of disco and house music,” he said. “I don’t understand this mentality that if you have a stamp of New York City or Los Angeles or a major city, your product is infinitely better than what we have here. It’s a little confusing.”

For the people organizing these programs, the bottom line is the investment in talent growth. Mr. Peacock, of the Northwest Arkansas Council, reiterated that the pandemic, for all its devastation, has created a moment worth seizing for local economies, namely expanding the work force with remote workers who won’t take jobs from locals.

“When the pandemic hit, we had to make sure we had visibility for individuals who were leaving the Bay Area or New York City or other metro areas, who were looking to reset their lifestyles,” he said. “We wanted to take advantage of those migration patterns.”