By Katy Savage
QUECHEE — Joel Parker and his family lived near Boston but they drove two hours to Vermont every weekend. They skied in the winter and cycled in the summer.
“Then we got the idea of why don’t we just live here,” Parker, 39 said.
Parker, his wife and children, ages 11 and 9, moved to Quechee just under a year ago. Parker, a software engineer, works remotely for his company in Massachusetts and drives to work at a co-working space in Woodstock, called the Optimist Center.
But there aren’t many people like him in the area.
“Quechee is a special case where it’s a lot of second houses,” Parker said. “You can tell there’s not a lot of full time younger families around here.”
Now, the state is paying people like Parker to live here.
Gov. Phil Scott signed bill S.94, the Remote Worker Grant Program, into law May 30.
The program pays $5,000 per year and up to $10,000 per person over the life of the program to cover the costs of relocating and working remotely.
“I was thinking I started the trend,” Parker said. “I’m the blueprint for this grant.”
The grant adds to a number of initiatives underway, both statewide and local, to bring people here.
An estimated 13 million visitors come to the state each year and express interest in living here, said Department of Tourism and Marketing Commissioner Wendy Knight.
Yet Vermont’s population is aging and its workforce is dwindling, she said.
“We’ve been working hard to put forth ideas,” said Knight.
The New Worker grant is similar to the Stay to Stay pilot program, which was created in the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing last fall.
Rutland, Bennington, Brattleboro were selected to take part in the Stay to Stay initiative, which brings a family here from out of state to spend a weekend for free and experience the Vermont lifestyle. The family receives free tickets to area parks and resorts, meets with realtors and networks with potential employers.
Rutland hosted its first family from New Jersey this past weekend. The next visitors are scheduled to come in August and then October.
The two programs are similar but different. The Stay to Stay pilot program targets people seeking to work for Vermont companies while the Remote Worker program is geared toward telecommuters and only available for those who work for companies outside the state.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development is tasked with implementing plans for the grant program. Funds are available on a first come, first served basis with up to $125,000 being awarded in 2019, $250,000 in 2020, $125,000 in 2021 and $100,000 each year after that as long as funds remain available.
The funds cover relocation expenses in addition to costs of updating computer software and hardware, obtaining broadband internet access and membership costs involved in joining a co-worker space.
“How this will play out we don’t quite know,” said Agency of Commerce Secretary Mike Shirling. “It’s a piece of a much larger puzzle,”
The Remote Worker grant adds to programs that have already been in place locally to attract more workers and families to the area.
Real Rutland, a $2 million initiative to bring people to the Rutland area, launched last fall. Real Rutland involves a number of digital marketing campaigns managed by Mondo Mediaworks in Brattleboro.
Mondo owner Luke Stafford wasn’t sure how the New Worker Grant would tie into Real Rutland. “This is one more opportunity for us to at least pique interest,” he said. “Hopefully it will turn into more young professionals moving here.”
Attracting the young professional demographic has been a challenge. There are about 60 active members in Rutland Young Professionals who range in age from 18 to 45 with most being in their 20s.“I’ve been saying for years that I think Vermont could be a tellecommunting paradise,” said Rutland Young Professionals President Will Gormly.
It’s unclear how many people currently work remotely in the state.
Travis Hellstrom, a consultant who lives Woodstock, opened the Optimist Center for remote workers last fall. He said about 15 people are members. The youngest is 22 and the oldest is in their 60s. They work as software engineers, consultants and writers and coaches. While some past initiatives have been unsuccessful, Rutland Economic Development Corporation Interim Director Tyler Richardson said there’s a difference now. There is more collaboration.
“We all recognize this is a challenge,” Richardson said. “Getting together and getting everybody on the same page, that’s happening more and more.”
The funds from the grant become available Jan. 1, 2019. Some are optimistic that it will boost the state’s economy.
“It’s putting us on the national stage as being innovative thinkers,” said Rutland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cohen.