Even Norman Rockwell couldn’t put a rosier cast to New Hartford, Connecticut, in mid-autumn. On the far western outskirts of the Hartford metropolitan area, the town’s converted brick mill buildings are now occupied by restaurants that sell and serve locally grown produce and locally made artisanal cheese. A river – the Farmington – really does run through the town, shallow and sparkling, punctuated by occasional fly-fisherman. Bridges arch over the river from stands of yellow-leafed birches to groves of flaming maples.
It’s exactly the kind of place that’s attracting pandemic-panicked New Yorkers who, drawing a circle of two hours’ train travel from Manhattan, figure they can set up parallel lives in the country and city.
The COVID-19 crowds that are now seeking fresh air and socially distanced living are looking beyond what is considered more traditional second-home destinations to small towns that have struggled to catch the updraft of the broadband revolution. As city dwellers scatter, enough of them are landing in the semi-rural spots to potentially realign the very definition of economic development, land use and the consequent cascade of broad band investment, municipal services, taxation and local spending priorities.
“The economy is moving faster than the population,” said Mark Lautman, an economic development consultant who has helped local organizations in New Mexico and elsewhere forge partnerships that serve residents and employers.
In the past, economic development was defined by incentives for buildings and infrastructure with the aim of winning and keeping employers with substantial numbers of workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a longer-term trend of separating talent from location. Economic development leaders are just starting to realize the profound implications of a distributed workforce on their local economies, workforce development, housing and real estate markets, he said.
“If you don’t have qualified workers, you can’t grow your economy,” Lautman said. “And all of a sudden, the cost of place of operation is zero. States throw massive resources at site-based economic development but remote economic development needs a fraction of that.”
Investors are already moving money into place to catch the coattails of COVID-catalyzed change.
Collin Gutman, managing partner of SaaS Ventures, a Washington, DC-based venture capital firm that works specifically with young companies in smaller metropolitan areas far from Silicon Valley, said that the pandemic has propelled high tech companies to redefine where and how they look for talent.
“Previously there had been a perception that these types of businesses could only get critical mass of talent in San Francisco or Boston,” he said. “That perception has changed very quickly in the past 12 months. We’ve seen an outflow to places like Louisville, Lexington, Nashville and people buying second homes in rural counties.”
Daniel Jeram is New Hartford’s First Selectman, the top official of the 7,000- resident town. He said he hasn’t seen anything quite like this year’s real estate sales burst.
“The game is on and it has been for months,” Jeram said. “You can tell from the license plates driving around town.”
He isn’t kidding. Regional market reports from the Greater Hartford Association of Realtors released at the end of 2020 show that year-over-year, pending single-family home sales rose 49.9%, days on market dropped by 32.1% and the median home sale price rose 13.3% to $280,500.
Maintaining the growth
With young families pouring in, New Hartford’s challenge is how to keep them, especially as support for enhanced broadband has been under discussion for years, with little progress, Jeram said. New Hartford is on the eastern edge of a subregion of northwestern Connecticut and southwestern Massachusetts that suffers from weak cell coverage and tepid broadband.
“We’re okay,” said Jeram, of New Hartford’s cable service, “but that is an ongoing debate that state and local leaders are struggling with, because cost to get broadband in is extremely high. Everyone knows it’s the wave of the future, but how will we pay for it?”
Rista Malanca is trying to figure that out. She is director of economic development for neighboring Torrington, where broadband somewhat peters out.
“We’re attractive and affordable for a lot of people, but how do we keep them engaged, so they center their lives here, and spend their money here?” Malanca said.
Powerful broadband paves the digital way for not just telecommuting and remote collaboration, but also for telehealth, remote education for children and adults and a host of other services that frame the new hybrid of a sophisticated information economy invisibly driving growth.
Consultants with McKinsey project that 22% of companies expect to hire more remote freelance workers in the foreseeable future. Before the COVID-19 pandemic reordered the American workforce in March 2020, only 4.9% of full-time U.S. workers telecommuted from their homes. By the end of June, 42% of the workforce was home-based, and workforce researchers expect that the dramatic shift is largely permanent. FlexJobs, a Boulder, Colorado-based employment site that serves both individuals and employers, projects that capturing work-life balance and reducing commuting stress are top priorities for people who want to move and either bring their jobs with them or find remote work.
Professionals who bring high-paying jobs with them also transplant demand for higher-end dining, grocery, local entertainment and home renovation and maintenance services, said Shaun Greer, vice president of sales and marketing at Vacasa, a Portland, Oregon, company that provides property management services to more than 21,000 vacation homes in North America.
Unlike short-term renters, professionals relocating for a full-fledged second hub where they can work and attend school remotely, need functional and municipal services largely different from tourist demands.
“If this trend continues, it will affect municipal budgets,” Greer said. “Most of these communities are restricted in some way, such as [their level of] power or utilities. If this growth continues they’ll have to put in a lot more infrastructure to keep up.”
New Hartford could take a cue from The Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in McKee, Kentucky, population 800.
In 2007, the cooperative, formed in 1950 and serving two rural Kentucky counties, decided to go all in on broadband, related Keith Gabbard, who has been the cooperative’s CEO for the past 25 years. Patching together about $50 million from federal, state and local sources, the service committed to bringing broadband to every home in its service area.
“Since 2014, we’ve had gigabit service to every home and business,” Gabbard said. “Once we got it built, we realized, ‘what do we do with it?’ We had to become more economic-development minded.”
Gabbard took on the role of one-man employment liaison, workforce training advocate, lobbyist to state legislators and public relations cheerleader, relentlessly promoting the cooperative’s ready, willing and connected workforce at conferences. Working relationships with national workforce development agencies and platforms – including FlexJobs – produced a stream of inquiries from American companies seeking to bring operations back to the U.S. from overseas, and looking to expand domestically.
“It’s been amazing,” Gabbard said. “In the last five years we’ve had 1,100 teleworks jobs created. People move here because of the internet and we’re seeing even more of that because of the pandemic.”
McKee still lacks a Starbucks, but it is making inroads with establishing a healthcare clinic that will pivot on telemedicine. And, Gabbard has even drawn local Amish into the high-speed loop as the cooperative hires their construction crews to expand into neighboring counties.
Communities that were a step ahead are both riding the first crest of post-COVID change while demonstrating the importance of close collaboration among regional economic, workforce and housing development authorities, investors and the private sector.
Broadband brought jobs to northwest New Mexico in 2017 and has anchored the local economy even as the COVID-19 pandemic has rolled from crisis to chronic. Shelly Fausett runs the SoloWorks program in the area, which advocates for workforce development and related supports, and which helps employers find and hire connected workers. SoloWorks had just moved to a new a co-working space to build capacity for distributed teams but the health care crisis kept workers home…and working.
“Right now in customer service, there are more jobs than people,” Fausett said.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated long-term trends toward remote work, annihilating embedded cultural resistance and rapidly realigning work processes to support sustained collaboration and productivity from any location, said Brie Weiler Reynolds, the in-house career development coach for FlexJobs.
Remote work surged for both staffers who have always had the capability to work from home and among the current and aspiring self-employed who immediately seized the opportunity to redesign their careers around the location and lifestyle they had always craved. In March, the FlexJobs platform received a 50% increase of inquiries and applications from workers, she said.
Companies and employment agencies – private and government-run – that already collaborated with local economic development and workforce training programs had a big head start on those that had in place only traditional programs, Weiler Reynolds said. Cross-functional workforce development programs that “combine broadband outreach with remote work training and company partnerships and that partner with FlexJobs to find the actual jobs, are serving people who already live in their areas and are hiring specifically from economic groups hard-hit by the tourism and hospitality industries.”
Workforce housing that is designed around and for home-based work will ensure lower paying, broadband-dependent jobs, such as customer service, highly skilled software developers and managers cut a very different profile, SaaS Ventures’ Gutman said. They are “six-figure Millennials” who expect, if not big-city culture and amenities, at the very least, transportation services that can quickly deliver the big city to the rural doorsteps of spacious houses with dedicated home offices.
And, the ability to quickly get to major cities will be a key plank of rural economic development, especially as patterns of post-pandemic life emerge, he said. High-tech transplants want lots of fresh-air recreational amenities but also want to take just one connector flight to a major air hub.
“It could be that saving the regional airport is your key to economic prosperity,” Gutman said.
COVID redefines tourism economies
The return on remote work-equipped workforce housing is short and sweet for communities long tied to cyclical tourism economies. A solid base of long-term second-home owners is already redefining tourism economies, Greer said, extending the 2020 season well into autumn, and thus continuing demand for cleaning, maintenance, renovation and some municipal services and activities.
“What we’re excited about is that this change means we keep more of our seasonal employees, hopefully longer,” he said, adding that a greater number of staycation homeowners could permanently stabilize tourist-town employment, municipal and local business cash flow and demand for broadband and other services.
The pandemic has proven the possibilities and powerful potential of a distributed workforce and, by extension, distributed economic development, said one longtime broadband researcher and advocate.
“The pandemic could yield a lasting legacy if municipalities, counties and states forge regional alliances for economic development, and use their combined power to rapidly build universal broadband, align tax policies and regulatory incentives to encourage private and public expansion of broadband to connect all American citizens,” said Rouzbeh Yassini, executive director of the Broadband Center of Excellence at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. “States need to relinquish counterproductive strategies focusing on stealing businesses from each other and combine forces. That’s the only way that many small towns and rural areas will gain critical mass to justify private investment in 5G, both through wired (cable and phone) and wireless services.
“If you get five or six state governments together, and get regional connectivity vision established, they’ll improve the economic value of that entire region for web-based daily services and for mapping, driverless cars and gain scale for recruiting residents, farmers and business,” Yassini said, citing the cascade of connected services that could support remote working, aging in place and other life-enhancing functions.
Lautman, the economic development consultant, detects a rapid realignment of the definition of economic development with state and local resources to support distributed workforces. Hybrid strategies that blend satellite nodes for regional managers and occasional team meetings are a natural evolution of the urban model of co-working spaces, he said. The pandemic has also elevated the importance of health care, childcare and related services as essential to workforce stability and productivity.
As professionals and corporate leaders become acclimated to working from their second homes, they might become influential advocates for their industries to pivot to distributed workforce development, potentially bringing economic development authorities and broadband providers with them.
“To create an environment that incentivizes and supports remote work, if I were a local economic development executive, I’d be at my state legislature asking for the same incentives to build houses with home offices that they give to industrial developers,” Lautman said. “Now we have a residential real estate platform for economic development.”