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Could Tulsa and West Virginia be almost heaven for remote workers?

February 24, 2021, 9:35 PM UTC

In 2002, the idea that someone would relocate from New York City to Tulsa for work was considered so preposterous that it became a nine-episode story arc on the NBC sitcom Friends. The hapless Chandler Bing dozes off in a business meeting only to awake and discover he has acquiesced to moving to the Sooner State to run the company’s office there.

Now, though, Tulsa is betting that young professionals will make that decision with their eyes wide open. At Fortune’s Reimagine Work Summit, held virtually on Feb. 24, Ben Stewart, executive director of the Tulsa Remote program, explained how they’re doing it.

The headline-grabbing incentive: $10,000, funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, for eligible remote workers to move to Tulsa for one year to live and work. But Stewart insists the Tulsa program offers far more: “It’s really about the community in which we’re able to integrate our Tulsa Remote members,” said Stewart, before highlighting downtown revitalization projects in the city.

Forging a similar path in his home state is former Intuit CEO Brad D. Smith, who recently launched West Virginia Remote in partnership with West Virginia University; the program is funded by a $25 million gift from his Wing 2 Wing family foundation.

Smith’s pitch for the Mountain State? The best mountaineering, climbing, skiing, and hiking east of the Missouri River and the humble but pioneering spirit of its residents. “In the state of West Virginia from day one, when the mountaineers settled the state, we realized we had to blaze trails instead of follow paths,” says Smith. “So that entrepreneurial spirit has always been alive. And it’s the core of the economy.”

Of course to most people, the recent reputation of West Virginia is as the face of the opioid epidemic. The state has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the country, and Smith doesn’t hide from that. But he says that by looking to places like Ireland, which suffered similarly desperate periods in the 20th century, they’ve learned many lessons: “They had brain drain, they had challenges with things like addiction. And they have reemerged as a Celtic Tiger and one of the fastest growing economies, and those happen to be our ancestors.”

Nothing has accelerated the rise of remote work like the COVID-19 pandemic. With many workplaces allowing employees to work from home—and a high percentage of them planning for that to continue post-pandemic—the idea of trading in the eye-watering rents of Silicon Valley and New York City for more modestly priced digs in cities like Tulsa becomes ever more appealing. As a result, Tulsa Remote saw a 300% increase in the volume of applications and moved 400 people to the city, while handing them that $10,000 check.

And Smith sees that potential for West Virginia also. “Going into COVID, roughly 23% of S&P 500 employees were qualified to work remotely…That number is [now closer to] 35% to 40%,” says Smith. “People want to find a place where they can live, work, and play. They want to be surrounded by a community that is full of kind and diverse people. And they want to have the opportunity to be a part of something new and fresh. And I think that’s why West Virginia is really appealing to a lot of people.”

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