Donor says acceptance of diversity a key to success in attracting remote workers to state
By Don Smith
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There are proven methods of encouraging remote workers to relocate to a state, according to Brad Smith, executive chairman of the board for Intuit, but he thinks West Virginia’s biggest advantage is unique.
“God tipped the playing field in our favor,” Smith said of his native state.
Today, West Virginia launched its “Ascend WV Remote Worker Program,” aimed at recruiting outdoor-enthusiast professionals to the Mountain State. The announcement came during a press conference with Smith and his wife, Alys, Governor Jim Justice, WVU President E. Gordon Gee, Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby, Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael and others.
The program — what state officials are calling “the nation’s premiere remote- work program” — is supported by Smith and his wife, Alys. It would allow adventurers to move to West Virginia and enjoy world-class recreation, uncrowded spaces, and a low cost of living while staying fully connected to their jobs.
Why does Smith think West Virginia has an advantage over other states in trying to recruit the nearly 50 percent of all Americans who, with workplace changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic, now have the opportunity to work remotely from home?
Other states can’t match West Virginia’s outdoor recreational opportunities, he said during an interview on Friday.
“You can’t create the mountains that we have … the water density that we were blessed with … the top three ski resorts in the mid-Atlantic states – all in one state,” Smith said.
West Virginia also has the newest national park — New River Gorge Park and Preserve, Smith noted, adding, “And if you throw in … world class mountain biking, why do you need to look any further than where the World Cup championship is being held … in West Virginia.”
The Smiths donated $25 million to West Virginia University to get this program started through the newly named Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative. WVU said the donation provides initial funding for the remote worker program, a groundbreaking initiative designed to help individuals and young families prosper amid the challenges of the pandemic.
The donation, Smith said, along with state support and participation, allows West Virginia to offer incredible incentives as part of the remote workforce recruitment program.
Ascend WV offers a relocation package valued at more than $20,000, which includes $12,000 cash and a year’s worth of free outdoor recreation donated by more than a dozen outfitters from across the state. State officials said West Virginia is the first and only state to promote its natural assets for talent attraction and retention. This comes when research shows Americans are spending more time in the outdoors than ever before.
The program also provides free coworking space where remote workers will have modern amenities to stay connected. Additionally, participants will be invited to networking events with state business leaders, guided outdoor excursions, and have the chance to earn remote work certifications through WVU along with access to the university’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
“What we do know is that $12,000 plus one year’s worth of access to outdoor recreation for free is absolutely the richest program” in the nation, Smith said.
However, Smith said the financial package is the easiest thing for other states to match, adding that West Virginia can’t get into a bidding war with other states or other cities.
That’s why he thinks the outdoor offerings are the key. “What we have to differentiate on is not just dollars … but what can we bring to the table that no one else can match.”
Smith said there are two other elements that will determine the success of West Virginia’s program.
“We have to accept the fact these people will come from outside. They’re going to be a diverse group of people. They’re going to have different beliefs, whether they’re religious or political or ethnic or racial…. We have to embrace the diversity and accept them as our new residents and West Virginians,” Smith said, “That’s why I think the odds are stacked in our favor, because, as I’ve said, if my car broke down, I wanted to break down in West Virginia because someone would be kind enough to help me.”
The other element is building the program out in a controlled manner.
The initial phase of Ascend WV focuses on three cities: Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Lewisburg. Those cities are preparing to welcome the first classes of remote workers. State leaders are already exploring ways to expand the program to additional communities.
“Our vision for Ascend WV is that it will grow to become 55 counties strong,” said Alys Smith. “We know that each community in West Virginia has something unique to offer. Whether it’s proximity to outdoor recreation or warm small-town charm, our hope is that this program’s leadership team can grow Ascend WV’s reach to support more workers in more communities in the years to come.”
But Brad Smith knows wanting to host the program isn’t enough.
“We studied what has worked and not worked and every other program that was launched before us and most recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with ‘Tulsa Remote,’” Smith said of his program concept that started forming years before the COVID pandemic accelerated the public’s interest.
“We discovered you have to have five things in place for the people who move there, or they will only stay for a period of time and then they leave…. The five things fall into major buckets like essential services such as broadband and affordable housing. They have to have vibrancy in their community. That means a diversity of restaurants, as well as an arts and entertainment scene. And it has to have access to something that’s differentiating it: In our case, it’s the outdoors…. We’re going to start with three cities that already have those things in place,” Smith said.
“We’ve put together a consulting arm as a part of this effort. It’s the West Virginia University Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative. That’s what my wife and I have sponsored. We’ve prepared a community readiness playbook, Smith said.
“All we’re saying is work with the consulting group that we put together. … It’s our team. It’s West Virginia University. We will help you get the things in place and stack the odds of success in your favor. It’s not as simple as saying come and move here and let me give you some money,” Smith said.
“We’re working with every mayor and every local economic development group to say: How do we get you ready so that we can then bring cohorts of remote workers here? You will be able to check the boxes. They won’t just come in and then leave. We already have that program in place. Our goal is 55 counties strong. These are just the first three cities; they will not be the last,” he added.
“I think we have an unparalleled alignment of interests. When I say that, I mean, we have West Virginia natives who come back and give back: Individuals like John Chambers, Ray Lane, myself, Jennifer Garner, Brad Paisley … just people who say, ‘… I’ll never forget where I came from,’” Smith said.
“The second is you have our federal, state, local officials who work across the aisle. And even though they have good, constructive debates when they need to, they line up to do the right thing. And then you have university presidents and all of our higher learning institutions and K through 12 partnering. They may compete on Saturday, but they work together Monday through Friday,” Smith explained.
“All of that came together in a way that, quite frankly, I think other states are going to struggle to match because everyone lined up and said let’s do this and take advantage of this opportunity while the iron is hot.”
Applications for Ascend WV are now open for the first 50 spots in the host city of Morgantown. Application windows for Shepherdstown and Lewisburg will be announced at a later date.
To learn more about Ascend WV, view the full incentive package, and to apply, visit www.AscendWV.com.