I ended my last column with the question, “Where will all these new residents work?” Here’s another question for you. If you could only take a chicken or a dozen fertilized eggs to a deserted island, which would you choose?
Everyone who lives in our area should ponder this question. Many in our region yearn for economic resurgence. Our area leaders, almost with one voice, believe that adding housing will revitalize our downtowns. Additionally, the thinking goes, the region needs housing to attract development and catalyze economic activity. I must confess that this struck me as counterintuitive and I argued against it for a long time, knowing about events like the Gold Rush or, more recently, the Williston Basin shale boom, where companies paid newcomers $150,00 a year to drive a pickup truck. Workers were willing to live in their cars awaiting new housing. What I missed was that boom economies often attract newcomers with well above normal salaries.
Even though I spent most of my adult life in a boomtown where empty spec houses were almost always available, I couldn’t accept the notion that move-in ready housing spurs growth. The region where we lived was growing fast and growth absorbed the housing inventory. Our local case is the other side of the coin; the Oneonta Micropolitan Area is growing at a glacial pace. We lack quality housing because we are not growing, and we are not growing because we lack quality housing. Such a paradox must herald a downward spiral. In fact, the city of Oneonta would lose census count save for the growth in college student population each year.
Historical migrations illustrate the power of a massive trend. The second industrial revolution saw a shift in populations, rural to urban. The Great Migration featured large numbers of African-Americans moving from the post-Civil War South to the industrial North. Now we are struggling against another massive trend: the move from expensive states like New York to welcoming low-cost and low-tax states.
Locally we hope to buck the trend by recruiting commercial and industrial development. Some would prefer to bring in a whale, a large employer to catalyze further development; others seek a number of minnows. How likely is either in today’s distributed economy? If you are retired you may not be familiar with workforce activity inside twenty-first-century corporations where many workers outside the e-suite sit down at temporary workstations when they come into the office. That may be hard to visualize if you had an assigned cubicle or office throughout your career.
Follow me as I describe the geographically distributed organization. Many professionals are members of an internationally distributed team. The team’s headquarters are convenient to the team leader, but team members work near their homes because skills are more important than location. Much of their work product (research, proposals, or technology design and development) is done collaboratively on the intelligent edge of the cloud, allowing members to work from home or en route to an office. When members spend time in an office, whether it’s nearby or far away, they sit and stow their gear at any unoccupied workstation.
And now to answer the original question, here is a quote attributed to Dr. Forrest C. Shaklee, "The best way to predict the future is to create it."
Our local economy needs structural change. We will enhance the benefits of growing commercial activity by attracting remote professionals to move here and work from home. We do this by channeling a portion of our recruiting costs into incentives including subsidized housing, reduced mortgage rates, dedicated professional workspaces, a bonus fund, and more. The bonus fund is the one essential component of a strategy that will save money and grow our tax base. The other components strengthen our competitive recruiting proposition and offset our remote location.
There is convincing evidence to support the bonus idea. Tulsa, Oklahoma, the state of Vermont, and the Shoals Region of Alabama all offer bounties of $10,000 to remote professionals. All three programs have histories of long-term business growth and a growing tax base. And they are not alone.
Some may argue that this is an expensive unneeded program. But if this strategy is wildly successful and we attract five remote professionals, it will cost us $50,000 while growing the tax base. Consider the fees our local governments sometimes pay for a consultant.
The state urges our leaders to advance transformational strategies. Local governments will succeed with disruption by a bright, daring initiative such as recruiting individual remote professionals while continuing to create the multiplier effect by attracting development.
Edmond Overbey lives in Oneonta.