Ascend West Virginia, a $25 million program founded and funded by Intuit executive chairman Brad Smith and wife Alys, has attracted 53 remote workers to Morgantown, with more set to be added there, in Lewisburg and in Shepherdstown.
Dr. Danny Twilley, assistant dean at the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University, said the effort will be ongoing and somewhat dependent on technological advances.
Intuit is the maker of TurboTax. Smith guided the company from 2008 until 2019, overseeing its transformation from straightforward desktop software to a product which can calculate taxes on a cellphone. Smith is a Kenova native and Marshall University graduate.
As for candidates, Twilley said, “We’re defining it as individuals who can work in West Virginia but have headquarters somewhere else. Some individuals have their own remote businesses. We want people to bring time and talent to West Virginia.”
Ascend West Virginia awards $12,000 for an out-of-state worker to relocate; one year of free outdoor recreation, up to $2,500 in value; a free “co-working space” in which new arrivals have a home base and a way of making friends; more than $1,200 in free outdoor gear rentals; and the ability to earn remote work certifications through WVU.
About 7,500 people have applied to the program so far, according to a news release earlier this month. Even if they weren’t chosen, candidates received an offer of $2,500 in mortgage assistance if they moved to the Mountain State on their own.
The cornerstone is West Virginia’s beautiful scenery and potential for outdoor recreation. “We’re playing to our strength,” Twilley said.
While the WVU-Ascend partnership motors on, the city of Charleston and the Charleston Area Alliance are moving ahead on their own worker relocation program. The city’s program is a little broader in that it also recruits regular, on-site workers. It offers $5,000 and an additional incentive of $1,000 if a friend or family member also relocates to the capital city.
About 170 people have applied so far, said City Hall spokeswoman Mackenzie Spencer. Of those, 12 have been selected with an equal number of remote and physical workers.
“We picked 12 in the first round,” Spencer said Monday. “Five are here. Others are working to locate jobs and housing. We’re helping with that.”
A key distinction between the two programs is Charleston’s willingness to help someone find a traditional, on-site job.
“You have to be at least 50 miles out,” Spencer said. “You have to be a remote worker or you have to fulfill a need in the job market. We’re working with employers.”
Spencer said Toyota and Charleston Area Medical Center are among companies benefiting from physical, in-person matchmaking.
As for the Morgantown effort, Twilley said normal technology advances may make up for what is seen as a hurdle in the quest — the state’s utter failure to extend broadband to rural areas.
“If we have to wait on broadband, we’ll do it in parallel,” Twilley said. “We’ll allow our program to push broadband consideration and vice versa.”
The timing may be moot, or at least Twilley hopes. He mentioned how Elon Musk and others should soon have a plethora of internet satellites in the air, negating the need for physical cable.
West Virginia is at a huge disadvantage in the broadband game when it comes to running physical cable over mountainous, remote terrain. That is why early recruitment is taking place in towns with already decent broadband.
One recruit the Ascend West Virginia folks are high on is Quintina Mengyan from Chicago. She is quoted in the September news release:
“Being outdoors and putting my energy toward exploring the Earth is no longer something I want for a vacation,” Mengyan said. “I want it every day. Jogs at dawn, appreciating the mountain air and trail hikes near a lake with loved ones.”
Twilley said Mengyan and her boyfriend are moving to the Morgantown area together. In an unexpected twist, Mengyan will be coaching WVU’s club lacrosse team.
“She reached out [to WVU],” Twilley said. “She asked if she could help coach. Turns out they need a head coach. So she’s head coach of the WVU club lacrosse team.”