In this May 15, 2019, photo, Jonathan and Beth Dow stand in their backyard in Bennington, Vt. The couple recently moved to Vermont from Colorado through a Vermont program to attract new residents. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Some rural states double down on attracting new residents

South Dakota, Maine and Vermont have lured residents with financial incentives

June 12, 2019 - 7:44 am
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BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) — With jobs unfilled and young people moving away, some rural states are doubling down on efforts to attract new blood by expanding programs that offer incentives to live there.

Over the past decade, states including South Dakota, Maine and Vermont have lured new residents with financial incentives in areas that need a boost. Vermont launched its program last year, and it's already beefing up for 2020.

Vermont's existing program seeks to entice new residents by paying them up to $10,000 over two years to move to a state with an aging population of about 626,000 and a low unemployment rate. So far in its first year, the program has pulled in 33 new remote workers and their families — amounting to a total of 87 new residents.

"This far surpassed our expectation of how successful it would be," said Michael Schirling, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Even though Schirling is now optimistic about the effort, some wonder if the relatively small number of new residents will make much of an impact.

Economist and recently retired University of Vermont professor Art Woolf says Vermont would need to increase its population by several thousand to make a sizeable difference in the state's economy.

Either way, Vermont is looking to keep recruiting. Starting in January, instead of just accepting applicants who work remotely for out-of-state companies, Vermont will pay up to $7,500 in expenses to people who come to work for local firms.

A $5,000 grant was instrumental in getting Beth Dow and her husband to move from Colorado to Vermont.

"Moving across the country is really expensive and I don't think we would have made the jump without knowing we could get reimbursed," said Dow, a commercial property claims adjuster. Dow now works from her Bennington home and the couple recently signed a lease to open an art gallery, which they dreamed of doing in Denver but said they couldn't afford to do out there.

Rural areas across the country have been losing residents as people move to areas where there's more economic opportunity and more to do, Woolf said.

Woolf said in areas with stagnant populations, tax revenues grow slowly while demands for services rise, and businesses have a hard time expanding.

Instead of offering financial incentives, a three-year-old private nonprofit organization called Live and Work in Maine markets the state and its jobs to prospective residents. This year it will be focusing on luring back former Mainers.

"There are lots of jobs in Maine to take advantage of if you want the quality of life that we have to offer," said Nate Wildes, executive director, who said businesses are noticing the campaign is working.

It helped draw Eric and Elizabeth Smith to Maine, when they wanted to get out of the Philadelphia suburbs, change their lifestyle and be closer to wilderness. It wasn't hard for Eric Smith, 32, a computer engineer, to get a job once they moved in late 2016. Elizabeth Smith had already worked remotely as a food scientist.

"The change was profound and pretty immediate. I wouldn't give it up for anything. Our life is just so much better," Eric Smith said.

Wyoming, which faces some of the same challenges as Vermont, has helped about 70 people return to the state since 2015 by assisting in their job searches.

It takes a special mindset to live in Wyoming, said Tyler Stockton, of Wyoming's Department of Workforce Service.

"Wyoming is a little different than a lot of other places. There are a lot of towns with very few people, and then it's a long way to cultural hubs," he said.

About a year after the effort was launched, Wyoming's economy had a downturn, so the program was put on the back burner. The state is now reworking it.

"What we're doing is asking the people in Wyoming what skill sets they need and then trying to find those people," Stockton said.

The Wyoming effort is based in part on the Dakota Roots program in South Dakota started in 2006 to help natives move back by helping them find jobs. South Dakota has since expanded the assistance to anyone who wants to relocate there, helping about 4,800 people and their families so far.

The state's labor and regulation secretary, Marcia Hultman, said in an email that Dakota Roots makes job seekers "aware of the great career opportunities and quality of life South Dakota has to offer while growing the labor pool for our state's businesses."

In Nebraska, the chamber of commerce in North Platte has had "mild success" with helping employers recruit workers, according to the North Platte Area Chamber of Commerce. The program has helped attract 13 professionals, including four attorneys, a physical therapist, a brewmaster and a minister to the area since it started a year and half ago.

Matt Christie, who grew up in a rural area, said he was ready to get out of his Boston suburb when he applied to the Vermont program.

He said the Vermont house he and his wife purchased and the tiny community of South Strafford quickly felt more like home than any of the other cities he recently lived in across the West Coast and in the Boston area.

"I'm so pleased that I did it," said Christie, who moved in early January.

Their now-toddler son has blossomed since they moved to Vermont, where Christie goes to town and school board meetings and has joined the energy committee.

"This is roots, this is the beginning of roots and it felt really nice," he said.

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