Two rural settlements give remote workers free housing for a month in the hope that they will stay longer

BELLEFONT, Pennsylvania – When the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed Central Florida and workers settled remotely at their kitchen tables or makeshift offices, Lauren Bill began thinking about this walking town she loved in rural Pennsylvania.

The 36-year-old Bill remembered the bucolic park, the surrounding hills, its cafes and restaurants and this cave antique shop.

“As soon as we learned we weren’t extending our lease in Florida, and my job let me go remotely, we were both like Belfonte,” Bill said recently. “We missed it. Where we lived in Florida, there was no way to walk. You have to go everywhere. “

Last month, the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship launched a unique program called “Wilds work: a remote lifestyle”In order to attract remote workers, such as Bill, to rural corners of the state. As pilots for the program were selected Belfont, a town of 6,276, about 10 miles north of Penn, and Kane, a town in McKean County with 3,500 residents on the edge of Allegheny National Forest.

Rural “increasing towns” across the country have launched similar programs, some of which give workers $ 10,000 to move there for one year.

In Pennsylvania, five applicants selected in each city receive free temporary housing. In Belfonte it will be one full month, mostly in bed and breakfast, starting in July. Selected remote workers will also receive digital gift cards that can be used at certain businesses in the Wilds region. Recipients will be invited to work as volunteers at the local level.

The Pennsylvania Wilds consists of parts of 13 rural counties in northern Pennsylvania, west of Harrisburg. While the region has for centuries been a place for outdoor recreation, for camping, hiking, fishing and hunting, the official Pennsylvania Wilds travel agency was established in 2003, aimed at attracting even more people. Some of the most popular destinations include Cherry Springs State Park, the National Star Observatory, the Elk Country Visitor Center and the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon along Pine Creek.

In the first months of the pandemic, when the outdoors seemed the only safe place, the excitement about the Wilds region intensified. Even getting camping was far away.

“Today, people don’t need to limit outdoor recreation to just vacations or weekends,” said Abby Peters, chief operating officer of PA Wilds Center. “They can access all of these outdoor opportunities that we have, after work.”

It is still unclear what long-term impact the country’s transition to remote work will have on cities and office buildings, or whether large numbers of workers will ever return. In the early months of the pandemic, real estate agents in rural Pennsylvania said phones rang day and night as city residents searched for rent or purchase. During the blockade of COVID-19, some lists in Paconas played on fears, promising an environment without COVID, and elected officials urged people to stay away.

“There’s noise, but usually it’s just the wind,” said an Inquirer last year, a Manhattan resident who moved to Pennsylvania.

Some who left the cities learned a quick lesson from America’s biggest rural shortage – poor Internet service – but this is a reason that has attracted rare bipartisan attention from all elected states and federal officials between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Bill and her fiancé Lance, who is a partner in a card and gaming store in Belfont, are renting a house near stores on High Street where the signal is strong. They both have families in more rural areas outside Belfont who have spotted ties.

“I need high-speed internet for my job, so it narrowed it down,” said Bill, who works for an aviation firm.

Belfonte has an outdoor work area in Talleyrand Park and Belfonte Springboard, a collective working office in several blocks. That’s where Jeniline Schuster, manager of Downtown Bellefonte Inc., Works these days. She moved to Belfonte in 2020 after working in architecture and design in Washington, DC, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

“This city really had to be rethought during the pandemic because so many things are focused on Penn,” she said. “We had 20 businesses open during the pandemic, but they really had to turn around because all of a sudden they couldn’t rely on Penn State.”

Bellefonte is ticking off what young workers may be looking for, Schuster said. There is a yoga studio, a craft brewery and distillery, as well as a new hotel under construction along Spring Creek.

At URBN Flavourhous, a coffee shop on High Street, manager Carol Nihart said she welcomes redundant workers, whether for a month or longer. She simply asks them to follow the unwritten rule of remote work in coffee shops.

“Yes, please come work here,” she said. “But please buy something.”

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