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A relocation incentive program that was fodder for a lot of jokes is thriving, and could be an important economic development tool for other cities.
When it first launched in 2018, Tulsa Remote, a program that pays remote workers from out of state $10,000 to move to the city for one year, was the butt of a lot of jokes, particularly on social media.
“Yeah, but who wants to live in Tulsa?!” quipped one Reddit user.
“Oklahoma? Are you mad?! I’d rather be dead in California than alive in Oklahoma,” another user commented on Twitter.
But Tulsa may be having the last laugh. Nearly five years into the program, the county and state have raked in millions of dollars. Program participants generated $2.5 million for Tulsa County and $3.1 million for the state of Oklahoma in tax revenue, according to a recent economic impact report.
Tulsa Remote, which is a joint effort between the city of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation, was created to attract more “knowledge workers,” who typically concentrate in large coastal cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. As the cost of living and housing in these cities prices more people out, programs like Tulsa's could prove to be an important economic development tool.
Several cities nationwide have relocation incentive programs, although offerings differ.
After launching last year, Rochester, New York, offers one of the most generous benefits: up to $19,000 in grants. Small cities like Ketchikan, Alaska, and Bemidji, Minnesota, offer free WiFi. West Virginia, meanwhile, is inviting remote workers to settle in several cities, offering up to $12,000 to people who stay at least a year.
Many of these programs have launched since the pandemic’s start as the percentage of remote workers jumped from about 3% of the workforce to about 12% as of last month. Tulsa Remote, however, is the most well-known and successful of the 70-plus relocation incentive programs around the country, having brought 2,165 people to town so far.
“We certainly didn't have expectations that it would go this fast when we set out to launch this thing,” said Justin Harlan, the program’s managing director. “But I think the shift in the work environments that people are experiencing across the country has certainly opened up this door.”
Last year alone, Tulsa Remote participants earned a cumulative $203 million—a significant sum that likely would not be circulating around the local economy without the program, Harlan said.
It is a significant number given that Tulsa Remote was created to attract more knowledge workers. According to an early study of the program in late 2021, 88 percent of the program's initial participants were college graduates, with an average income of $105,000.
“The intervention takes aim at some of the Tulsa region’s core structural economic challenges familiar to many state and local leaders across the heartland,” the study said, including “inconsistent population growth that is slower than many peers, difficulty retaining and attracting highly educated workers, and lagging growth in high-tech, high-wage industries and occupations.”
To date, Tulsa Remote has earned a cumulative $306 million and is planning to grow to 4,000 members by 2027. It seems a feasible goal given that there’s no shortage of applicants, according to Harlan. About 70,000 people have applied so far.
There are a handful of eligibility requirements, such as willingness to move to Tulsa within a year and the ability of applicants to demonstrate community engagement through activities like volunteering.
Besides boosting the local economy, Tulsa Remote has also brought increased racial diversity to the city. Forty-eight percent of participants who have committed to moving to Tulsa in 2023 are non-white, and as of last year there’s more diversity among participants than in Tulsa as a whole. Although, it should be noted, that in a city of about 411,000, the 2,100-plus cohort still only makes up a sliver of the population.
Program participants also tend to stay, according to Harlan. About 90% of participants remain in the city after their one-year agreement is up, and in total about 76% of participants who have joined since 2019 are still calling Tulsa home today. That retention rate isn’t just luck. The program has more than a dozen full-time staffers devoted to helping newcomers settle in, including finding housing and connecting them with others in the community by providing co-working space and through organized meetups.
“We've seen that people are really prioritizing Tulsa as a place that provides a high quality of life and a low cost of living,” Harland said. Tulsa Remote also “provides an amazing opportunity to connect to other remote workers in a job that often can feel isolating.
Notably, Tulsa Remote’s success is made possible by investments from the George Kaiser Family Foundation. While that kind of funding mechanism may not be available in most communities, the program has provided a kind of roadmap for other cities interested in a similar approach to follow, Harlan said.
State lawmakers agree. In 2021, the state legislature passed a bill to encourage more communities to replicate Tulsa Remote by providing funding to public trusts and other organizations that attract remote workers to the state.
Tulsa Remote is “a really great representation of how we view the work at the foundation level,” Harlan said. “The private dollars [allow us] to innovate and come up with these new cool ideas to try out, and then when we know it's working, it's really the public dollars’ job to come along and help sustain the program in the long run.”
Editor's note 7/6/23: This story was updated to correct the percentage of Tulsa Remote participants who stayed in the city after their one-year obligation ended.
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