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NY Post
New York Post
16 Dec 2023

NextImg:I moved to Tulsa for $10,000

It was October 2021 and I was two weeks away from moving to Tulsa, Okla. All I could think about, though, was how to get out of it. After decades in New York, I was petrified by such a massive change. Maybe my landlord would let me stay? 

For years I’d considered leaving the city.

But, work, friends, and inertia kept me firmly planted.

Then the pandemic set in.

Remote work became the norm and, locked in our apartments, many of us began to contemplate our futures — if not mortality: Did I want to die never owning a car? Never having an apartment with a garbage disposal?

I had just turned down a media job in small-town Missouri when I heard about Tulsa Remote, a grant program that provides $10,000 for mobile workers willing to move to the “Oil Capital of the World” for at least a year.

Participants also receive access to a co-working space and a support system to help them acclimate to their new lives.

Justin Harlan helped launch Tulsa Remote, which debuted back in 2018 and saw its application numbers surge during the pandemic. Courtesy of Justin Harlan

It was that last perk — more than the cash — that convinced me to go through with my move to the prairie: Relocating is hard, but knowing there were hundreds of other newbies in place made it less scary.

Launched by Justin Harlan in 2018, Tulsa Remote is the largest of dozens of programs nationwide aimed at reinvigorating smaller cities by attracting remote workers, typically in the tech sector. 

Located everywhere from Paducah, Ky., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Rochester, NY, and Ketchikan, Alaska, these initiatives surged during the pandemic but are now facing the test of time as “remote” workers settle down and return to office life.

My timing was fortuitous.

A year after the first group of Tulsa Remoters arrived, COVID-19 hit.

Applications more than doubled and the number of people who moved to Tulsa as part of the program soared from 70 in 2019 to 380 in 2020. 

Overall, more than 50,000 people have applied to Tulsa Remote and some 2,500 members have made the move to “T-Town.” 

Most are staying put: According to Tulsa Remote, 90% of participants have remained past the required year and nearly 500 have bought homes.

The city – which had seen its college-educated population drop every year during most of the last decade — has also benefited: As of December 2022, Tulsa Remote participants generated $306.7 million in direct employment income, according to a local economic impact report.

Tulsa Remote participants in a local Tulsa yoga event. Tulsa Remote

When program alum Jade Marcotte moved to Tulsa from Brooklyn in October 2021, her friends thought she was crazy.

Especially since she’d never even visited the city.

“They were in shock,” Marcotte said. “Like, ‘Why would you go from the best city in the world to this bumpkin town?”

But the 31-year-old project manager heard about Tulsa Remote from a trusted coworker and decided to give it a go.

In less than a year, Marcotte had purchased a home — something that seemed impossible in New York, where the median list price is nearly $800,000, three times that of Tulsa.

Venezuelan immigrant Erik Bovell (right) moved from Pennsylvania to Topeka, KS where he’s been able to buy a home and accumulate wealth for his family. Courtesy of Erik Bovell

After living in both New York and Chicago, product designer Jayme Markus enrolled in a Muncie, Indiana’s remote-worker program in August 2022.

In addition to a $5,000 stipend — half up front, half after a year in town — she received perks like a gym membership and access to a coworking space.

She’s one of more than 110 new residents Muncie has welcomed since beginning its program in January 2022.

“I have a whole home for the same price as my one-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint,” said Markus, 35. “Life is just easier.”

Like many in relocation programs, Markus says the move pushed her outside her comfort zone: She joined a Universalist Church choir and volunteers for a voter registration campaign. She and her husband aren’t sure Muncie will be their forever home but “there’s strong potential for us to put down [permanent] roots,” Markus said.

Jayme Markus is one of over 100 folks who’ve moved to Muncie, IN as part of their remote-worker relocation program. Courtesy of Jayme Markus

Some 600 miles away, in Topeka, Kan., remote worker Erik Bovell says he’s not going anywhere.

In 2021, Bovell, a process control engineer, was accepted into Choose Topeka, a four-year-old initiative that has attracted dozens of new residents to the city with a cash incentive of up to $15,000.  

Bovell arrived in the U.S. several years earlier as an asylum seeker from Caracas.

“If we had stayed, my family would be struggling. There is no middle class in Venezuela anymore,” said Bovell, who moved to Kansas from Pennsylvania. “Here, I’ve been able to build wealth.”

It’s not just cities that are working to lure high-earning workers.

Launched by former Angie’s List executives in December 2020, Make My Move is a digital marketplace that connects remote workers to communities with relocation incentives — more than 60 locations in a dozen states. 

Pictured above are the various locations where relocation programs are offered. NY Post/Mike Guillen

Many are in parts of the Midwest and South that have lost population and industry.

“There’s been an exodus of talent and this is a novel approach to bringing it back,” Make My Move co-founder Evan Hock said. “Greensburg, Indiana, is never gonna get an Amazon HQ2, but they can get Amazon talent. And then Amazon is paying taxes in Indiana.” 

Traditionally, states have used economic development strategies to woo corporations.

But that can take years to implement, never pay off, or face 11th-hour cancellations like Amazon’s attempt at an HQ2 in Queens.

Remote workers show up and start spending immediately, Hock said.

Participants are typically part of highly-coveted demographics — in their late 20s to early 30s, working in knowledge industries, with six-figure incomes.

The author during his time living in Tulsa. He ultimately returned to New York for a job offer that “was too good to turn down.” Courtesy of Dan Avery

The median age of a Tulsa Remote member, for instance, is 35, and 88% have college degrees, compared to 32% of Tulsans as a whole.

“They’ve been priced out of big cities or feel they aren’t connecting to their communities,” Hock said.

As the pressure builds to get employees back behind their desks, the fundamentals behind the remote work boom remain strong.

According to a Make My Move survey, 70% of workers under 40 would rather quit than go back to in-office work. 

Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist who has studied remote work, praises these incentive programs for targeting “very valuable employees.”

The town of Muncie, IN is offering folks willing to relocate a $5,000 bonus. Shutterstock
According to a Make My Move survey, 70% of workers under 40 would rather quit than go back to in-office work.  Phil Clarkin HR

“Fully remote employees are highly flexible on where they live and tend to be high earning, so it’s a great strategy in terms of providing good local tax and spending revenue.”

Tulsa is on the higher end of the incentive scale: Frankfurt, Kentucky, provides a more modest $5,000 cash while Natchez, Mississippi reimburses $2,500 in moving expenses and allots a $300 monthly stipend for those who buy a house.

Make My Move estimates there’s about $50 million in incentives nationwide, with roughly 5,000 households relocating since 2019.

Some of the most successful programs enjoy backing from private charities.

The town of Frankfort, KY is also offering remote workers $5,000 to move to town. Shutterstock
In Vermont (picture the city of Montpelier, VT), the relocation bonus was a hefty $7,500 for folks willing to move to town. Shutterstock

Tulsa Remote is a project of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which funds everything from tech startups to programs for women in recovery. 

In 2021, former Intuit CEO Brad Smith and his wife, Alys, donated $25 million to fund Ascend West Virginia, which offers $12,000 to move to the Mountain State. 

Ultimately, though, participants say the money isn’t the real draw.  

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“It’s the icing on the cake,” said Marcotte. “This is really more about finding the lifestyle you want. When you factor in moving costs and taxes, the money doesn’t go that far.”

The programs have experienced pushback, however: When Fayetteville, Ark. — home of Walmart’s corporate headquarters — announced in 2020 that it was tempting remote workers with $10,000 cash and a free mountain bike, residents complained the money should be invested locally instead.

The city’s Life Works Here program was “spitting in the face of people who are already here and doing the best they can,” resident Justin Ratliff told The New York Times in 2021. “I could probably get a lot of my life together with $10,000.” In Vermont (picture the city of Montpelier, VT), the relocation bonus was a hefty $7,500 for folks willing to move to town.

Enticing individual workers is still a new strategy, and somewhat experimental.

Some incentive programs have already sunset and a $7,500 stipend offer in Vermont since 2018 isn’t expected to receive additional funding.

Meanwhile, those who have relocated don’t always stay.

Marcotte expects to leave Tulsa within a year or so.

“Fully remote employees are highly flexible on where they live and tend to be high earning, so it’s a great strategy in terms of providing good local tax and spending revenue,” says Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom. Stanford

She’s enjoyed the friendliness and how much further her money goes.

But “trying to find people who don’t have families, who aren’t in couples, and who stay out after 8 p.m. is difficult,” she said.

It’s also hard to gauge what the future of remote work will look like.

The number of Americans who worked remotely tripled from 2019 to 2021, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

But even as workers claim to love working from home, a March 2023 survey from Pew Research Center found that only about a third of employees who could work remotely actually are.

Topeka, KS was offering an impressive $15,000 to lure high-earning workers to town. Shutterstock

Applications for Tulsa Remote, meanwhile, have plateaued since they exploded in March 2020. But Harlan says demand remains high.

“There were more applicants this year than last year, and I think next year will be even bigger,” he said. 

As for me, I ultimately returned to New York in October.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy in Tulsa—far from it, I thrived there. But I was lured back by a job offer that felt too good to refuse.

Tulsa offered the right move at the right time, but it was a little too small – even if I still don’t have an apartment with a garbage disposal now that I’m back in Brooklyn.