Wanted: Knowledge workers in the American Heartland


When Wendy Song told her family and friends that she was leaving Los Angeles to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the reaction was almost always the same.

“Most of them were just like, ‘Where is Tulsa? I feel like my mom still doesn’t really know where I am,” says Song, who moved to the city in 2021, with a laugh. “She just knows I'm in the state above Texas.”

During the pandemic, Song, 34, whose marketing job had been converted to a remote position, wanted to give the digital nomad lifestyle a try. The L.A.-area apartment she and her husband, Sen Dowling, were living in was small and expensive.

Wendy Song and Sen Dowling  

“We were paying $2,500 for a one-bedroom and it was kind of dark,” she says.

That’s when they came across Tulsa Remote, a program designed to attract remote workers to Tulsa by providing a $10,000 financial incentive to relocate to the city for at least one year.

After researching the program – she remembers being enticed by the low cost of living--and watching YouTube videos of people who had been part of Tulsa Remote, the couple decided to apply to the program.

On their very first trip to the city after being accepted into the program, they put down a deposit for a one-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $1,400.

Wanted: Remote workers

Long is one of 2,700 people who have participated in Tulsa Remote, one of the nation’s first and largest remote worker relocation initiatives. It is among a growing number of such programs throughout the country where knowledge workers are getting paid to move to help revitalize the local economy. During the pandemic, as the opportunities for remote work became plentiful and people sought more space at affordable costs, cities facing economic challenges and slow population growth offered such programs to attract skilled workers.

During Tulsa Remote’s first year in 2019, it received 10,000 applications. This year, it has received 60,000.  

Justin Harlan, Managing Director, Tulsa Remote  

“We knew that we needed to diversify the economy here in Tulsa, often reliant on oil and gas, which even in the best of times is a complete roller coaster ride,” says Justin Harlan, managing director of Tulsa Remote. “The theory was if we could target remote workers, we'd attract knowledge workers to the city, which would then diversify our economy. And we thought if we could get them to Tulsa and really showed them everything that Tulsa has to offer, that they'd stick around.”

Zoomtown economics: When knowledge workers come to town

The economics have worked so far.

An economic impact analysis from the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization, found the first program cohort was responsible for generating millions in new local earnings and bringing hundreds of new jobs to Tulsa in 2021.

The average age of those who have moved under the program is 34 and the average salary is above $100,000.

If the program continues to grow as expected, by 2025 Tulsa Remote is poised to generate $500 million in added income in the local economy and well over 5,000 jobs locally, according to the report.

In total, for every dollar spent on the remote worker incentive itself, there has been an estimated $11.56 return in new local labor income to the region, according to Tulsa Remote.

The retention rate of the program, which is a top priority for the program, has also been high. Of the total members who have joined since 2019 and completed their program year, 76% still lived in Tulsa at the end of 2022.

Tulsa Remote: A 'Utopia'

The program’s approach to community building has been a big reason why Elena Haskins moved from New York City and ended up becoming a homeowner.

“They have events that you can go to, they basically give you friends. In what situation is it ever where you move to a new place, and someone is handpicking events for you to make friends that have common interests with you?,” says “It feels like a utopia. They give you this money, they give you community, and then you can go home after a year if you don't like it.”

Elena Haskins (in white top) with her friends from Tulsa Remote  

Although it started as a “social experiment,” the 27-year-old tech entrepreneur quickly realized that the program was exactly what she had been looking for.

Even when she lived in Brooklyn, Haskins says she always looked for opportunities to engage with her community whether it was delivering groceries to immunocompromised people during the pandemic, fostering cats, and mentoring high school kids, so being able to plug into a readymade community appealed to her.

Being surrounded by a lot of other entrepreneurs also motivated her to formalize the formation of her UX design company.

In Brooklyn, she shared a small two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, paying $1,000 for her share.

“My bed touched three walls. I didn't have a closet. I did have a dresser in my room, but I couldn't use two of the drawers because there wasn't room to open them,” she says.

When she moved to Tulsa, she could afford a “luxury” one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown, with an in-unit washer dryer, central heat and AC, and all the amenities she wanted.

“It's much more chiller and a little bit underwhelming, but in a very fun way where it feels like I have a blank canvas. Like, hey, this is a place where I can really do anything I want because there's not a lot here yet,” she says. “ I got really excited in a way that I've never felt before where, you know, in New York, there's all these established things already exist.

Elena Haskins' new home in Tulsa, Oklahoma  

Within a few months, she knew wanted to be here longer term, and in December 2022, she bought a new construction single-family home for $302,000 at a 5.2% interest rate.

The median sale price of a home in Tulsa in August was $215,000, 65% lower than the U.S. median at $420, 284, according to Redfin.

“I wanted to build equity and it was a good starting point, low costs compared to other cities,” she says of her decision to buy.

Rebuilding the Black Wall Street

Kelsey Davis in front of her new home in Tulsa, Oklahoma  

Kelsey Davis became a homeowner at age 25 after moving to Tulsa from Los Angeles in February 2022.

Davis, who runs a software technology company, says as a Black founder interested in recreating the glory days of Black Wall Street in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, the city was just the place to move.

Believed to be the richest Black community in the U.S. at in 1921, the neighborhood was destroyed in what has come to be known as the Tulsa race massacre. One factor for the arson and looting was resentment toward the Black prosperity in the area, say experts.

“Black Wall Street in Tulsa was literally bombed and destroyed because of the level of success and wealth and power and autonomy that was circulating in that region and in that market that the rest of the city and the state didn't really feel like they had access to,” she says. “You can kill a person, but you really can't kill vision. You can't kill purpose and a mission.”

Tulsa Remote has provided her with an ecosystem to thrive in her entrepreneurship journey, she says.

Six months after her move, she bought a house in Greenwood for $259,000.

“I bought a house literally on Black Wall Street,” she says. “A lot of that energy, even just spiritually still exists in the city.”

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post