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How much would it take you to move to West Virginia? The state is paying up

Would $20,000 do the trick? The program, called Ascend West Virginia, wants to use the state's natural beauty and a little cash to make it a remote-work destination.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Could West Virginia be the next remote-work hub in the United States? A new program aims to use the state’s natural resources and a little cash to bring workers to the Mountain State.

To find out about it, WUSA9 traveled to Morgantown, West Virginia and met the people behind the program.

"The fact of the matter is we've lost more population than any other state,” said Danny Twilley, one of Ascend’s economic development leaders.

We met Twilley inside a co-working space on West Virginia University’s campus. He explained where the numbers bear out. For the last several censuses, the exodus of residents from West Virginia led to it losing a Congressional seat.

“We've lost our best and brightest,” Twilley said.  “When people have a highly desirable skill and are highly educated, they have economic and social mobility. They tend to leave our state.”

Credit: WUSA9/Becca Knier
Danny Twilley, one of the key members of the Ascend West Virginia team.

"How do we plug the bathtub and then refill it?”

Remote working is not a new concept. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, cities around the United States created pilot programs based on remote work.

“Bend, Oregon in the middle of nowhere, had the highest per capita of remote workers in the country,” Twilley explained.  “It's an outdoor playground, but we got a whole state that is an outdoor playground.”

That is where the idea of Ascend West Virginia began. A program that would attract remote workers because of the lifestyle and quality of life the state can offer.

Enter former software CEO and native West Virginian Brad Smith. Smith and his wife partnered with the state and West Virginia University to create, fund, and implement Ascend West Virginia.

Credit: WUSA/Becca Knier

Here is how it works. The program offers a total value of $20,000 to newcomers through the program. Those remote workers would initially get $10,000 to move to one of the three pilot areas that launched in 2021: Lewisburg, Shepherdstown, or Morgantown. Then, they'd receive another $2,000 for the second year. 

But the straight cash is only part of the incentive package. Remember part of the draw to West Virginia, Twilley pointed out, is the outdoor lifestyle.

“We also provide a recreation package,” he said.  “Where they have vouchers to go around and experience different parts of the states.

“From our state parks to our ski resorts to some of our great outfitters.”

That portion of the package is valued at around $8,000, but the experience - Twilley believes -will be priceless.

“We're really trying to leverage our outdoor assets to make West Virginia the best place to live, work and play in the country.”

Ascend West Virginia launched its application process in 2021. According to Twilley, they had more than 7,000 applicants for 50 spots. This Spring the first class started to arrive in Morgantown.

Credit: WUSA9/Becca Knier
Jennie Smith-Peers and her husband are part of the first class of Ascend West Virginia.

At the co-working space on WVU’s campus, we found Jennie Smith-Peers, who just moved out from Washington, D.C. Immediately she radiated enthusiasm for her new home.

“I'm, like, enveloped in nature,” she smiled. “It’s Central Park or Rock Creek Park, but everything is accessible now and possible.”

Her journey to the Mountain State started during the pandemic. She and her husband lived in a one-bedroom apartment off Connecticut Avenue in Northwest. They were both working remotely and starting to get cabin fever

“We start going,’ where do we want to live?” she remembered. “'If we're going to always remote work? How do we get out of this?’”

Late one night, they stumbled across Ascend West Virginia and applied to the program. Several months later they were accepted and were granted full-time remote work from their jobs.

While the draw of the outdoors and the cash incentive are nice, Jennie pointed out affordability played a huge role in their decision.

“We looked at a three-bedroom house with a full kitchen, a dining room in our living room, and that was only around $1,300,” she said. “In D.C. that is easily $4,000.”

Since they arrived, Smith-Peers said the Ascend program has introduced them to the Morgantown business and arts communities.

Credit: WUSA9/ Becca Knier
Smith-Peers walking along the river in Morgantown explained why she packed up her DC life to move to West Virginia.

“My husband and I have dreams of starting businesses that we couldn't have started in DC,” she beamed.  “We didn't have the capital in DC. and didn't have that kind of support. But here, it's possible.”

That is exactly what Danny Twilley and the Ascend team hope for the program.

“It's not going to be the silver bullet,” he said of Ascend West Virginia.  “It is a piece to a larger strategy, but we think it's a significant one, and we can really make a difference.”

A program that takes the majesty of West Virginia’s nature and a little cash to try to make West Virginia a growing hot spot for remote work.

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