photo –(Brad Davis/The Register-Herald) Michelle Rotellini, President and CEO of the
Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference
Friday afternoon at Jim Word Memorial Park.
Is there an urban exodus occurring? It’s hard to find a lot of supporting evidence for the narrative, but I can tell you for sure that my friends in real estate say they have more properties under contract than they had in the early 2000s. The appeal of a more rural environment in light of the pandemic could certainly be one answer to the population loss in Raleigh County and across the state.
We often hear complaints about our college graduates and trade workers leaving the state for better employment opportunities in metropolitan areas. Big cities offer easy access to various amenities, better transportation, larger health facilities and more entertainment and education options. But, in the era of coronavirus, the question some may be asking is: Do all of those things offer a greater advantage compared to what rural living offers especially in an accessible place like Beckley, situated within four hours drive to at least six major cities?
I’m privileged to know Christian Martine, a remote hi-tech worker, who was mandated to work from home in March as a measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19. After spending a few weeks quarantined in the San Francisco Bay Area, Christian sought permission to work from his childhood hometown in West Virginia to improve his quality of life and be closer to family.
When Christian and I first talked about the opportunity I saw from his move, we traded back and forth our favorite things about Raleigh County with passion and excitement.
Rural living offers affordable housing. You can get a lot of property for a minimal investment. The median home value in the state of West Virginia is currently less than $100,000. That makes it a lot easier to establish residency, especially if you are able to work remotely, semi-retired or retired. Renting is relatively affordable as well.
Rural areas like Raleigh County offer a low density in population, natural landscape and open spaces. Our highlands offer miles of hiking, and biking, access to whitewater activities on the New River, rock climbing, recreational lakes, six golf courses, a ski area and numerous other outdoor activities unique to our geography. We truly have some of the best outdoor experiences available in all four seasons. This is particularly appealing in an era of physical distancing.
Christian agrees there is interest in moving to a refreshing environment like ours. He is working with the Chamber to research the opportunities and understand the barriers in attracting remote workers. What needs align and which don’t? Who will be the pioneers? Are incentives needed?
We know that a potential influx of people is an opportunity for sustainable growth and innovation. Skilled professionals would increase demand for local products and services. New residents would pay income, property, and sales taxes, enabling local and state governments to increase the quality and breadth of government institutions and services offered. Sourcing individuals from disparate professions and regions would spark new commercial innovations and opportunities for cultural exchange. Together, a boost in commercial demand, tax revenue, and innovation is a virtuous cycle that would further increase the appeal of our region for remote workers and brick-and-mortar businesses looking to set up shop.
Recruiting workers here also comes with its challenges. Moving is expensive and time-consuming. We have a limited quantity of move-in ready homes. Renovations are arduous and the new generation of young professionals would rather spend their free time enjoying recreational opportunities.
There is also less company diversity than in urban environments and lower demographic diversity than in the United States overall. We have limited sustainability infrastructure, which conflicts with sustainability commitments of companies that may choose to locate here. West Virginia also has fewer employee protections, such as permitting out-of-state adjudication of non-competition agreements. We also have limited West Virginia brand awareness nationwide.
There are challenges and there are opportunities. The pandemic has taught us all a lesson about focusing on the things that matter – family, friendships, quality time. As the virus continues to rage on across the country, people may decide to leave their cities for a more relaxed lifestyle such as ours. The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce is preparing for this. Along with our collaborative partners, like Christian, we will ensure that we find the best ways to show why our area is a great place to live, recreate and work.