November 15, 2018

Can small cities like Tulsa pay ‘digital nomads’ to put down roots?

Tulsa is the latest city to offer digital nomads $10k to move there, but it faces an uphill battle.

The city of Tulsa just launched a program offering remote workers $10k and several sweet perks to move to Oklahoma’s most happening town. 

From Vermont to Alaska, underpopulated areas are rolling out incentive programs to attract footloose digital workers. But, even as remote ranks swell, it will be difficult for Small Town USA to turn the urban tide.

Plugging the brain drain

The digital economy has altered the geography of the workforce dramatically: Tech jobs replaced manufacturing jobs, causing states like Pennsylvania and Oklahoma to lose big.

And, while some tech jobs were specific to cities like Seattle, many weren’t: remote jobs rose 115% after 2005. 

Now, areas that lost young workers are trying to reclaim some talent by offering perks to — or outright paying — remote workers. Tulsa’s program offers 25% up front, and doles out the rest monthly to keep workers around. Vermont offers a similar program, but over 2 years.

Making digital nomads feel at home

Remote workers often make the same salary no matter where they work, but a Tulsa dollar isn’t a San Francisco dollar: according to Trulia, the median cost of rent in Tulsa is $950 — in San Francisco, it’s $4,450.

But to lure workers away from cities, remote areas need to provide more than money: Vermont naturally sweetens the deal for millennials with maple syrup and mountains (which both make great Instagram posts).

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (sadly no relation to P.T. Barnum) took a more mundane approach, offering free memberships to a co-working space. 

Are small towns the new cities?

Sadly, the numbers say nay: in 2015, 82.7% of Americans lived in cities, and that percentage is forecast to increase to 89.2% by 2045.

Areas with attractions (ski towns, beach towns, towns with really good ice cream) will attract some remote workers. But, for the average rust belt city, free co-working memberships and cheap rent can only do so much to cut through the natural musk of the bustling city.

Let’s just hope Tulsa’s co-working spaces have enough kombucha and scooters to attract all the nomads it needs.

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