In April 2021, the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at WVU in partnership with the WV State Tourism Office and the Wing 2 Wing Foundation launched the talent attraction and retention program: Ascend West Virginia. Despite COVID, 115 remote workers and their families have already relocated to the Morgantown Area, the Greenbrier Valley, the Eastern Panhandle, and Greater Elkins with more continuing to arrive every month.
For these newest West Virginians, access to outdoor recreation opportunities was a driving factor in the decision to move. This is consistent with a recent study by Livability Media that found 45% of survey respondents started a new outdoor hobby during the pandemic, and 44% indicated that access to outside activities influences where they choose to live. As the percentage of fully remote professionals trends upward (LinkedIn Market Research), those who can choose to live anywhere are setting their sights on West Virginia.
In addition to bringing their spending power to the state, individuals bring their talents and energy to their new communities. Volunteer coaching for youth sports, serving on non-profit boards, shopping locally and organizing litter clean-ups are just a few of the many ways that Ascend members are meeting people and meeting needs at the same time. 46% of Ascend members have purchased homes, and when surveyed after a year of involvement in Ascend WV, 88% of respondents reported a 50% or higher likelihood that they will remain in the state after the two-year program is complete. “The heart behind this program really boils down to these three principles: community, purpose and the outdoors,” explains Alys Smith, cofounder of the Wing 2 Wing Foundation. “Those who have already made the move to West Virginia are planting roots here and making a difference.”
Convenient access to local trails and the flexibility of a work-from-anywhere career helps Ascenders incorporate outdoor recreation into their everyday wellness. In a recent survey, a Morgantown Area Ascend member wrote, “Having so many natural resources and being part of a community that is passionate about outdoor recreation has significantly increased my involvement and ability to participate in outdoor recreation. Also, having other individuals with experience participating in other outdoor activities has provided the opportunity to try things I never had … and being able to expose my kids to these activities.”
As West Virginia’s new economy continues to evolve, the power of outdoor recreation cannot be taken for granted as a talent retention strategy. We continue to watch this trend in other locations such as Utah. According to a 2021 study by the University of Utah the most important factor for Utah’s tech sector employees deciding to move to or stay in Utah is access to outdoor recreation and public lands. Here in West Virginia, by encouraging remote workers to live, work, and play in our iconic mountain towns, we can replenish our population with more talented individuals committed to community, purpose, and the outdoors, while economically benefiting the existing population. Through programs like First Ascent, our state’s best and brightest can experience the work/life balance that remote work offers while building a community, fostering a sense of purpose, and enjoying the outdoor recreation assets that set West Virginia apart.