The Ascend West Virginia program held a digital round table with members of the West Virginia press via Zoom Friday afternoon to discuss the program’s progress. In attendance on the call were Ascend leaders and community partners, as well as two Ascend program participants.
First announced in April, Ascend WV is a remote work program that aims to be “the nation’s premier talent recruitment program” by offering workers with remote jobs incentives to move to West Virginia. Those incentives are estimated to have a value of $20,000 and include $12,000, access to a free cowork space, and a year of free outdoor recreation.
The program was founded by former Intuit CEO and new president of Marshall University Brad Smith and his wife Alys. Brad explained that Ascend’s approach to economic development is the inverse of past efforts, attracting employees rather than employers. The diversity of businesses represented by Ascend’s participants is the program’s strength.
“In fact, we’re represented by several dozen (companies) with the first 50 ascenders…Speaking as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, companies follow talent. So as soon as employees start to say, ‘I want to live in West Virginia’…eventually these companies say, ‘Why are all my employees wanting to live in West Virginia? Maybe I should open a satellite office there,” Smith said.
Morgantown officially became the program’s first host city when it began welcoming the first cohort of 53 participants in September. At that time, applications for Lewisburg’s cohort of 25-30 participants were opened. Shepherdstown is the last of the original three host cities to open applications.
While similar in model to other remote work programs such as Tulsa Remote in Oklahoma or Life Works Here in Bentonville, AR, Ascend WV aims to take the entire state into consideration.
“We started out day one, saying 55 counties strong. And while we knew that there would be host cities, we wanted to create this ripple effect where everyone benefits,” Smith said.
This includes highlighting existing remote work programs across West Virginia on its website, including Marion Remote and Wheeling: Live Here, as well as a “try before you buy,” tourism promotion in partnership with vacation rental website Airbnb.
When asked about how the program would scale up beyond the host cities to include all 55 counties, Smith said that while all 55 counties will not have host cities in them, all counties “will benefit from the statewide narrative that we’re telling, and the energy and the buzz that’s coming in.”
Dr. Danny Twilley, Assistant Dean for the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University, pointed towards Ascend’s investment in infrastructure development.
“Even though we have been blessed with great typography, we have some great outdoor assets to build on, we still have to create access to that. We have to lower the barrier of entry and make it attainable and accessible,” he said.
This includes partnering with the International Mountain Bike Association to create new trails in and around Morgantown. According to Twilley, these types of efforts are not limited to the program’s host communities.
“I want to be very clear, we’re not just doing that in Morgantown, and Lewisburg, we’re supporting other communities. We’re doing project development and management, we’re providing technical assistance…and then we’re also doing education, training and workshops,” Twilley said.
Ascend WV will soon announce two more host cities as it continues its push to bring 1000 remote work participants – and their families – to the state within the next five years.