In November 2018, long before the coronavirus descended and changed the contours of working in America for many, for good, the Tulsa Remote pilot program began courting remote workers. Starting with 70 enrollees, the program set out to test the efficacy of paying work-from-home types to relocate to passed-over places like, well, Tulsa. The program promised $10,000, meted out over the course of a year, along with other perks like discounts on co-working spaces and apartments, in exchange for these remote workers bringing themselves, their jobs, and their disposable incomes to Oklahomas second city.
In the three years since, the program has grown into one of the nations first and largest remote worker relocation initiatives, bringing more than 1,200 remote workers to the city, who in turn have brought at least another 600 people along with them. In a way, Tulsas strategy was prescient, given that, just over a year later, the coronavirus accelerated the nature and availability of remote work for many white-collar workers.
A recently published analysis from the Economic Innovation Group found the program to be an overwhelming success. The overwhelming majority of Tulsas 1,800 relocaters have stayed in Tulsa. On average, one new job was created in Tulsa for every two remote workers who relocated. The result: $62.0 million in new local earnings in 2021$51.3 million directly attributable to relocated remote workers and $10.7 million from the employment boost generated in the local economy. The program created 394 jobs directly, and led to another 198 newly created full-time equivalent jobs based in Tulsa. Overall, the EIG report concluded, the program delivered a $13.77 boost in new local labor income for every dollar spent relocating a remote worker. Those numbers may be inflatedeconomic-development analysis is a genre known for hyperbolebut the seeming impact of the program is notable all the same.
Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a Tulsa-based philanthropy, Tulsa Remote has put forward something of a new blueprint for economic-development planning. Despite being bound to stay no longer than a year, 88 percent of recipients chose to stay on longer than their incentivized period.
Compared to the cost-per-job efficacy of the current prevailing economic-development ploys, Tulsas program looks like a steal.
In recent years, trying to figure out how best to resuscitate and reinvest in passed-over, depopulated American cities has led to an immense amount of gimmickry. A number of urban-renewal projects have focused on dangling millennial lifestyle expressions and amenitiescoffee shops, bike lanes, street art, and breweriesas a way to lure people away from expensive big cities and back into midsized towns.
Tulsa has gotten into that gimmickry boom, too. A Bloomberg article from last year highlights that in the past 10 years, a mix of public and private dollars has helped build the sprawling $465 million Gathering Place park, a new Bank of Oklahoma convention center, and a revitalized Arts District, not to mention that a sprinkling of new breweries has appeared, emboldened by a recent relaxing of strict state liquor laws.
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The urban amenities approach is still less dubious, though, than the prevailing economic-development strategy from cities and states, which showers money on large corporations with tax breaks and subsidies to move to places where they had already intended to set up shop. The Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes shined a spotlight on this ploy, in which states and local governments heap money on corporations in the hope that they will do the work of rehabilitation that straightforward public investment in infrastructure and services would accomplish. In 2017, Foxconn famously banked a stunning $4.1 billion subsidy from the state of Wisconsin to build a massive television panels factory that never materialized; by 2021, Foxconn announced that theyd only be hiring 1,500 people, and even that might be high.
Compared to the cost-per-job efficacy of the current prevailing economic-development ploys, Tulsas program looks like a steal. By comparison, New York state spent $958.6 million to build Teslas solar panel factory in Buffalo, and purchase a bunch of the equipment inside of it. By late 2019, auditors had assessed the value of the factory at just $75 million, 8 percent of the money put in. The factory was on pace to cost New York $657,000 per job, without assurances that the wages would be any higher than Teslas average starting salary of $33,000.
To be sure, the idea of paying people, rather than corporations, to relocate is something of a gimmick itself; it raises questions about the optics of giving peoplelargely white-collar, high-earner types who make plenty of moneymoney because they already have money, when those resources could be directed to desperately needed social services that have been drained from American cities and towns everywhere. Nonetheless, the program has proved to be ahead of the curve on the commonsense public-policy refrain of the coronavirus era: Give people (as opposed to corporations or the super-rich) money. The problem is, for 50 to 60 years weve been sold this story that the way to develop a local economy is to give a corporation a lot of money; all its resulted in is a massive shift in resources from local communities to corporate coffers, said Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy for the American Economic Liberties Project. Anything that tries to break the paradigm of raining cash on corporations is directionally the right way.
Just as stimulus checks proved astonishingly effective in 2020 at mitigating poverty and meeting needs, giving people money, in this instance, seems to be more effective than the corporate approach as well. Of course, that money is coming not from a public entity, but from a private philanthropic one. Nor is it going to the neediest. Tulsa Remote participants sport a median income of $85,000, compared to Tulsas regional median of $58,000. Nearly 90 percent of recipients have a bachelors degree, while only 32 percent of residents of Tulsa do.
There are plenty of criticisms to be made about a program that funnels money to the well-off and well-educated. In effect, its predicated on some breed of trickle-down economics; affluent people will dispose of their disposable income and become engines of economic innovation, creating jobs. There are plenty of poor people in Tulsa for whom $10,000 could prove life-changing. For a white-collar worker making $85,000, that additional 10K is more likely to be put toward something like a down payment. Indeed, according to the programs website, Tulsa Remotes $10,000 grant can be received as a lump sum upon the purchase of a home. And Oklahoma recently passed a bill to reimburse organizations or jurisdictions for some remote workers who move to the state, thus making this program effectively a public one.
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For Tulsa, a onetime oil boomtown, its program also offers a way to better navigate the economic effects of the climate crisis. Its hardly the only American city whose fortunes are tethered to the price of hydrocarbons. As climate change necessitates the winding down of fossil fuel infrastructure, there are likely to be many small cities facing a bleak future. Are remote workers something you can really build a local economy around? Probably not, said Garofalo. But its starting to change the paradigm.