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'Pay to move' attracts people — not employers

Marsha Mercer, Stateline.org on

Published in Business News

WASHINGTON -- For decades, cities and states have tried to create jobs and boost their economies by luring out-of-state employers. Now some areas are trying to attract workers -- one worker at a time.

Starting this month, programs in Vermont and Tulsa, Okla., will pay people to relocate to those places if they work remotely. Other resident recruitment strategies in Florida, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont include weekends that tempt tourists to stay, discounted rent, student loan assistance and free land.

"It's a departure -- very much a sharp departure" from Vermont's traditional programs, said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development. "We need people."

The shift in strategy marks a recognition that as fewer people are tethered to brick-and-mortar offices, state and local officials can reap the benefits of workers' spending and taxes no matter where their employers are based.

"You need the people to get the businesses to come, and a lot of small places are immediately out of the running because the people aren't there. It feeds on itself," said Doug Farquhar, program director for rural development with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Farquhar sees "pay to move" as "somewhat of a desperate plea: We need educated people to come here and stay here." He cautions that little research has been done on the effectiveness or sustainability of the strategy. And in Vermont, some advocates for the poor have criticized state officials for "luring tech bros to gentrify our communities."

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But in a state that is desperate for more people -- Vermont has about 620,000 residents, with about 45 percent of them retired or about to retire -- officials are willing to give it a try.

"The original idea was to give incentives to out-of-state companies to find people who want to live here," said Democratic state Sen. Michael Sirotkin, chairman of the economic development committee. "We decided to give the money to the workers and let them find their jobs."

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed the Remote Worker Grant Program in May. The legislature provided $500,000 over three years to reimburse expenses of remote workers from other states who relocate.

Each worker can receive up to $10,000 in grants over two years. Eligible expenses include computer software and hardware, internet access and membership in a co-working space.

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