A publicly funded initiative that pays out-of-area workers to temporarily live in the Pennsylvania Wilds with the goal of them becoming permanent residents is looking inward as it enters its third year.
Despite the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Wilds Are Working program since its launch last year, just one participant out of 20 has moved to the rural region with their family. But administrators say relocation isn’t the only measure of success for the initiative.
Even seemingly small acts — like continued visits and discussions about how rural life isn’t for everyone — have a big impact, participants and host organizers told Spotlight PA.
In 2022, Bellefonte and Kane hosted the program, which includes housing and a stipend. This summer, remote workers spent several weeks living in Emporium or Warren. The ultimate aim is for participants to move to the region after their trip ends — which was the case for one family who relocated to Cameron County — to grow the local tax base.
Wilds Are Working is administered by a nonprofit that encourages conservation and economic development in the region using state and private funding. The Appalachian Regional Commission, the Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development all contribute to the program, which is set to run through 2024.
Two grants from the commission, including a $1.5 million “Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization” grant, helped fund the program, said Ta Enos, CEO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. She added that most of the grant funds didn’t go toward Wilds Are Working.
“There were several other partners and projects included in the two grants,” Enos told Spotlight PA in an email. She did not include further details.
Calculations for total dollars spent on the program will be released once the grant is fully closed out, Enos said. The grants funded roughly $100,000 for remote work stipends across three years in what will ultimately be six communities. Enos added that $110,000 went toward contract funds to support host communities, including funds for a marketing campaign.
That’s about $210,000 total across the program’s three years, Enos said.
The PA Wilds Center estimates that $40,000 in ARC funds will remain for two more communities to act as hosts during the final year.
The grant dollars help the Wilds Are Working communities to pay for housing, events, a marketing campaign, and a $1,500 gift card for each participant to use at local businesses. This year, participating communities were also required to invest several thousand dollars of their own to demonstrate local buy-in.
Similar efforts have become more common nationwide since the COVID-19 pandemic popularized remote work, with some even offering thousands of dollars and other free perks to relocate.
Brittany Madera, communications manager at the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, said program participants embraced living in a rural area and walked away with memories and a better understanding of the area.
Though only one family relocated after their stay in Emporium this summer, program officials said others have kept in touch and still visit the area. Feedback from the program also influenced local change, including a Bellefonte coworking space moving to a more spacious office and Kane volunteers deciding to greet new residents with welcome bags.
—Marley Parish, Rural Affairs Reporter