BELLEFONTE — When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through central Florida and workers settled in, from a distance, at their kitchen tables or makeshift desks, Lauren Beal began to think of this walkable city that loved in rural Pennsylvania.
Beal, 36, recalled the bucolic park, the surrounding hills, its cafes and restaurants, and that cavernous antique store.
“Once we found out we wouldn’t be renewing our lease in Florida and my job was going to let me go remotely, we were both like ‘Bellefonte'” Beal said recently. “We missed it. Where we lived in Florida, there was no opportunity to walk at all. You have to drive everywhere. »
Last month, the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship launched a program called “Nature works: a life experience at a distance”, in an effort to attract remote workers such as Beal to rural corners of the state.
Bellefonte, a town of 6,276 about 10 miles north of Penn State, and Kane, a McKean County town of 3,500 on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest, were chosen as pilots for the program.
Rural “Zoom Cities” across the country have launched similar programs, some of them giving workers $10,000 to settle there for a year.
In Pennsylvania, the five candidates chosen for each city receive free temporary housing. In Bellefonte, it will be a full month, mainly in guest rooms, from July. Selected remote workers will also receive digital gift cards that can be used at select Wilds area businesses. Recipients will be encouraged to volunteer locally.
Bellefonte’s application window is closed, but Kane is still accepting applications for his remote work residency, which will run from September 14 to October 14.
The Pennsylvania Wilds is made up of part of Center County and 12 other rural northern Pennsylvania counties west of Harrisburg. Although the area has been an outdoor destination for camping, hiking, fishing and hunting for centuries, the official Pennsylvania Wilds tourism agency was established in 2003, with the goal of attracting even more visitors to the area. world. Some of the most popular destinations include Cherry Springs State Park, a national stargazing destination, the Elk Country Visitor Center, and the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania along Pine Creek.
In the early months of the pandemic, when the outdoors seemed like the only safe space, buzz around the Wilds area grew. Getting a campsite at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County was a long shot.
“People today don’t have to limit outdoor recreation to a vacation or a weekend getaway,” said Abbi Peters, director of operations at the PA Wilds Center. “They can access all of these outdoor recreational opportunities that we have, after work.”
During the early months of the pandemic, real estate agents in rural Pennsylvania told The Inquirer their phones rang day and night with townspeople looking for rentals or purchases. During the COVID-19 shutdowns, some enrollments in the Poconos played on fears, promising a COVID-free environment, and elected officials urged people to stay away.
“There is noise, but it’s usually just the wind,” a Manhattan resident who moved to Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, told The Inquirer last year.
Some who left the cities got a quick lesson in rural America’s biggest downside — poor internet service — but it’s a cause that’s received rare bipartisan attention from every elected state and federal official. between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Beal and her fiancé, Lance, who is a partner in a card and game store in Bellefonte, rent a house close to the High Street shops, where the signal is strong. Both have family in the more rural areas outside of Bellefonte where relations are uneven.
“I need high-speed internet for my job, so it’s been reduced,” said Beal, who works for an aviation company.
In Bellefonte, there is both an outdoor workspace at Talleyrand Park and Bellefonte Springboard, a collective work office a few blocks away. This is where Jennilyn Schuster, Director of Downtown Bellefonte Inc., works these days. She moved to Bellefonte in 2020, after working in architecture and design in Washington, DC, and Charlotte, NC
“This city during the pandemic has really had to rethink because so much is focused on Penn State,” she says. “We had 20 businesses open during the pandemic, but they really had to pivot because all of a sudden they couldn’t rely on Penn State anymore.”
Bellefonte ticks the boxes young workers might be looking for, Schuster said. There’s a yoga studio, craft brewery, and distillery, plus a hotel under construction along Spring Creek. Bellefonte Under the Lights, a large outdoor dining event along the creek, attracts nearly 1,000 people each year.
“It’s also just a nice, quiet place to live,” she says. “A lot of people come back here after retirement too.”
At URBN Flavorhaus, a cafe in the High Street, manager Carol Nihart said she welcomes remote workers, whether for a month or more. She simply asks them to follow the unwritten rule of remote work in cafes.
“Yes, please come and work here” she says. “But please buy something.”