Last year, like many Americans, Matt Fahrenbruch found himself suddenly doing his job from home. He lived in Topeka, Kan., where he audited programs for the state Legislature.
As remote work continued during the pandemic, and his team’s productivity didn’t suffer, he began to realize that if he could work from home, then home could be anywhere he wanted. He and his wife had often thought about relocating to the Upper Midwest. Fahrenbruch, 39, had studied at the University of North Dakota, and they loved the region.
"It was just a question of, ‘how are we going to end up back up here?’ Because we both have professional degrees,” he said. “We're talking about areas that have much smaller economies."
Earlier this year, they saw a job possibility for his wife with the city of Bemidji. But he didn’t see anything for himself. Then, he read about Bemidji's 218 Relocate program, which offers $2,500 to help cover moving or telecommuting expenses for people who move to Bemidji from more than 60 miles away and bring a job with them.
So he pitched the idea to his boss. He could telecommute for his job — with the Kansas Legislature — from Bemidji, Minn.
“And they're like, ‘All right, let's try this,’ ” he recalled them saying. “‘We want to keep you, you know, we want to retain our talent. Let's try this out as a pilot program.’ ”
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In July, he moved to Bemidji with his wife and 2-year-old. And after a three-month tryout, his job is now permanent. They bought a house, and he feels like they’re already fitting into the fabric of the community — his neighbor has even taken him crappie and walleye fishing.
"I mean, it's everything I could have asked for. To be honest," he said.
The Fahrenbruchs are one of 22 families who have qualified so far for the relocation program since it began in February. It’s run by the economic development organization Greater Bemidji, with funding from a local foundation and Paul Bunyan Communications.
Greater Bemidji hatched the idea for an incentive to help lure people to town before the pandemic, but assistant director Erin Echternach said they launched it after hearing stories of people teleworking from cabins in the area last year after COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect.
"It was this light bulb moment of ‘Oh my gosh, we have to promote this,’ ” she said.
A key part of Bemidji's sales pitch is its high-speed internet. Paul Bunyan has built one of the largest rural, all-fiber broadband networks in the country in north-central Minnesota.
“For them to move up to their cabin, and then connect with us and say, ‘I get better internet service at my little cabin in Bemidji than I do down in Maple Grove, Minn.,’ that was pretty special,” said Echternach. “And that's when 218 Relocate was born.”
218 Relocate is one of several resident recruitment programs that have sprouted up around the state in recent years, with names like the "Get Rural" initiative in western Minnesota, “The Good Life” campaign in the north-central part of the state, and “Live Like a Local,” in Grand Rapids.
Those efforts grew out of research from the University of Minnesota that highlighted what researcher Ben Winchester calls the “Brain Gain.” Contrary to the popular narrative of dying small towns, Winchester said many rural communities have attracted newcomers in recent years in search of what he calls a “life-work” balance.
"And I say it that way because I think we have shifted away from a work-life balance, to a life-work balance,’ he explained.
The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality has surveyed more than 2,000 people who have relocated to rural communities around the state in the past five years, part of a larger “Rural Movers” study.
Winchester said they found that people move away from larger metro areas for three key reasons: a slower pace of life, a safer place to live and a lower cost of housing.
And even before the pandemic, Winchester said 14 percent of the people they interviewed who moved to rural areas were telecommuters — they took their job with them. Many more didn’t even have a job lined up.
“Just one-quarter of our new residents in this study had shown that they moved with a job or a job offer in hand,” Winchester said.
That flips traditional economic development thinking on its head. Communities used to focus on luring businesses to town, figuring that people would follow the jobs. Now, communities are increasingly focusing on improving and promoting their quality of life, to attract talented workers who increasingly can work wherever they live.
“I strongly believe and I have believed for 10 years that economic development isn't a race for companies. It's really a race for talent,” said David Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji.
Hengel said Bemidji has always been that place people go to vacation, at a resort on a lake, or a cabin, or to go hunting or fishing.
"The opportunity is there now for them to stay here if they choose to change their lifestyle,” he said. “And I think we are in a unique time right now for that message to resonate."
That message already seems to be resonating in the Bemidji region. Paul Bunyan Telecommunications installed broadband services to over 3,000 new locations in 2020, more than any other year in the cooperative’s history and about twice as many as previous years, said marketing supervisor Brian Bissonette.
“This year we are on pace for between 2,500-3,000, very similar to 2020,” he added.
The 218 Program is working to approve relocation incentives for four additional families this month, and Echternach said she’s working with more than 60 families moving to the area.
‘An acquired taste’
Despite recent trends, rural communities face significant challenges in recruiting newcomers. Many places do not have robust internet service. Smaller towns can feel insular or constraining. Winters up north are long and cold.
Hengel likes to say that Bemidji is “an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone.”
Echternach said she makes a point of having honest conversations with everyone who inquires about the 218 Relocate program. "I'm not here to sell you that Bemidji's going to be 70 degrees throughout the entire year,” she said.
Locals want to attract newcomers who are more likely to last. That, in part, is why they’re offering only $2,500 to new residents. Other parts of the country, from northwest Arkansas to Topeka, Kan., are offering up to $15,000 to lure new folks to town.
“We knew that we had this very niche market that we were going to be catering to,” explained Echternach, people who were attracted to Bemidji’s outdoor lifestyle. “And we wanted this to just be the cherry on top.”
But as rural communities roll out their welcome mats, a key challenge they face is to be welcoming to newcomers, in places where sometimes locals want their towns to stay the way they are.
Winchester’s research finds that when a community is perceived as being welcoming, residents are much more likely to see themselves there in the future. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed who felt the community is welcoming believed they would likely still be living there in five years.
That’s why in Bemidji, the 218 Relocate program matches newcomers up with locals with shared interests through something called the “Community Concierge” program.
Sarah Sanchez, who moved from Phoenix to Bemidji in the middle of winter — and in the middle of the pandemic — said that's been a lifesaver.
"It was very difficult because everything's closed,” she said. “How do you get connected with community when everyone's social distancing?"
Sanchez is working remotely as a grant manager for a Phoenix nonprofit; her husband is a youth director at a Bemidji church. She's fourth-generation Mexican American, and left all her family in Arizona. But she and her husband got matched with a local family. And she said they hit it off.
"And for me, that was really like the part where I felt like there are people out here that I really connect with and that I have a lot in common with,” she said. Because of that experience, she said “I can really see myself establishing some roots here and building relationships."
Last year Beltrami County, of which Bemidji is the county seat, made national headlines for being one of the first in the country to reject refugee resettlement.
The vote divided the community. But Mayor Jorge Prince, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and became a U.S. citizen at 15, said that vote didn’t reflect how people feel about immigrants, or having a community made up of people of diverse backgrounds.
“I am a first-generation immigrant,” Prince said. “And so, I would tell you if, if our city truly wasn't welcoming, truly didn't have space for immigrants, I would find it hard to believe that I would be elected mayor 60-40.”
Prince is also an entrepreneur, and knows how crucial it is to attract more newcomers like Sanchez to rural communities, that have older populations than the state as a whole, and lose younger people every year to school and jobs in larger cities.
“As we look forward, I only see our city growing, and I only see our city becoming more diverse,” Prince said. “And I'm excited about that.”