Chris Schulz Published

Ascend’s Remote Workers Help Elevate State Tourism

Watching the sun rise from a mountain summit is a special summer delight.  To make it happen, you have to start the hike in the dark.

The pandemic changed the ways people work. Over the past year, Ascend West Virginia has taken advantage of that change to attract remote workers to the state.

Two years ago, Jordan Hyde didn’t think much of West Virginia. That isn’t to say she had a low opinion of the state.

“I just didn’t really have a perception of West Virginia, like I hadn’t heard much about it, didn’t know anyone from here, had never been,” she said.

So when Hyde told her friends and family last year that she was planning on moving to West Virginia from Iowa, where she lived for the past 10 years, there was a bit of confusion.

“They’re kind of like, ‘Why do you want to go out there? Like, there’s nothing there.’ And it’s like, Well, it sounds like a fun adventure,” she said.

Hyde is a member of Ascend West Virginia, a remote work and talent recruitment program founded by former Intuit CEO and president of Marshall University Brad Smith and his wife Alys Smith. The program aims to attract workers with existing jobs to move to the state and create a base of skilled employees that will then attract larger business investment. It’s a reverse of the traditional model of attracting businesses.

The program offers workers with remote jobs incentives to move. Those incentives are estimated to have a value of $20,000 and include $12,000, access to a free cowork space, and a year of free outdoor recreation. Fifty people were selected for the first group of participants, called a cohort, in Morgantown. In August applications closed for the program’s second cohort in the Greenbrier Valley.

Hyde says she’s always been inclined towards the outdoors, and the outdoor incentives only helped cement her choice. She says she looked at other programs such as Tulsa Remote in Oklahoma or Life Works Here in Bentonville, Arkansas but ultimately West Virginia’s beauty won her over.

“I think that was kind of the initial hook,” Hyde said. “But just like looking more into West Virginia, I’d never been to West Virginia and it was like, very new to me, I’ve never lived in the mountains. Again, I’m from the Midwest. So it was just exciting and beautiful, as we were looking into it, just breathtaking.”

Hyde isn’t keeping the discovery to herself.

“It is a ripple effect,” she said. “Other friends and family, my boyfriend’s and uncle that are coming, have kind of seen our parents and their experience here. And they’re like, ‘Oh, man, I want to get out there and see what it’s all about and visit them.’ So I think the tone has definitely changed for the better.”

Paris Winfrey is the experience coordinator for Ascend’s Morgantown cohort. He says that Hyde’s experience of winning over skeptical friends and relatives is not unique.

“That is one of many stories of people who have brought their loved ones and their families here,” Winfrey said. “The lack of actual experience in West Virginia is the big barrier. Once you come and experience West Virginia, it makes sense, it clicks, it immediately clicks. You see the kindness and the people, you see the beauty and nature and it all makes sense; why someone would want to live here and why someone would want to come and recreate and be a part of this.”

Winfrey, who helps Ascend cohort members make use of their outdoor benefits and plan excursions around the state, says he’s also seen a lot of in-state tourism from the group.

“They’re really interested to know Appalachia, and really interested to know West Virginians,” he said. “A lot of other people externally try to tell our story, but there are lot of people who are now interested in coming here to actually hear our story from us, which I think is a unique position that West Virginia hasn’t been in for a long time.”

West Virginia Secretary of Tourism Chelsea Ruby says that from the outset, Ascend leaders knew there would be an added benefit of cohort members attracting other people to the state. Which is why her office got involved. The scale, however, has come as a surprise.

“We knew there would be spouses, there would be partners, there would be children, but I don’t think what we calculated was the mother-in-law, the great aunts, the uncles, the friends, the others that are coming along with them,” Ruby said.

Ruby says surveys and studies her office has conducted bear out Hyde’s experience: negative public perception isn’t what’s holding West Virginia back when it comes to tourism.

“We find that people who are exposed to our ads have a different perception of West Virginia, not because they necessarily had a bad perception before, but because they had no perception,” she said. “They weren’t thinking about West Virginia, we weren’t on their radar as a place to visit or a place to live.”

Ascend worked closely with the state’s tourism office from the onset, hoping to change- or some might argue create – external perceptions of the state.

“All the things that make West Virginia a great place to visit, also make it a great place to live,” Ruby said. “If you think back to the governor’s inaugural address, he talked in that about how we need to change our state’s image. We need to change the way the outside world thinks of West Virginia, and I’m proud to say that I think five years later, we’ve really started to do that.”

One of the biggest criticisms of Ascend is that it has prioritized – and paid – non West Virginians to come to the state rather than doing the same to help native residents stay. According to the 2020 census, West Virginia experienced the largest population loss in the country as 3.2 percent of the state’s residents left. Winfrey himself left the state, and the country, for several years before returning for his job with Ascend.

“The solution can be one of two things, either you bring new people in, or you keep people from leaving,” Winfrey said. “This is not the one solution to fix anything. But we talked a lot about changing the narrative of the state. When we opened up our application, we had 10,000 people fill out an application and say, ‘I want to move to West Virginia.’ That’s huge, that is against the trends that we were heading towards.”

The Ascend West Virginia program continues to expand as another cohort moves into the Greenbrier Valley, and applicants are chosen for the program’s third cohort in the Eastern Panhandle. The hope that each group will continue what Morgantown started, and keep spreading the good word about West Virginia across the country.