This story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
BELLEFONTE — 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.
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 grant 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.
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 community.
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.
After the first year, organizers said, they changed the Wilds Are Working application to include questions about whether someone was seriously considering moving to the region.
Mads Hanna, who left Denver for a small town in Maine after spending three weeks in Kane, said she thinks the experience works best for people already considering moving to a tight-knit area.
“It’s for people who want to invest in deeper relationships and be part of something bigger,” she told Spotlight PA. “You get the opportunity to volunteer, throw your hand up, and see your impact come to life — whatever contribution you make.”
Hanna credits the program for her decision to move to a similarly sized town near the ocean.
Kane Mayor Brandy Schimp said the program helped residents see themselves through the eyes of others and allowed local groups to learn how to welcome and support new residents.
Kate Kennedy, executive director of the Kane Area Development Center, said Wilds Are Working showed how committed the community was to hosting newcomers. Program events also helped identify other remote workers and families who moved to the area but went under the radar due to the pandemic.
The program also exposed areas for improvement, such as the need for more housing options. Joe Lanich, who owns a letterpress print shop with his wife in Kane and served on the selection committee, noted that while Kane has small lodging, hosting a convention would be challenging.
Lanich, who grew up in the Wilds, added that hearing from participants who decided a “familial” community wasn’t for them was helpful.
“Now, I know that when I’m doing my hard sell, to gauge what’s important in your life,” Lanich said.
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