BELLEFONTE, Pa. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through central Florida and workers settled remotely at their kitchen desks or temporary offices, Lauren Beal began thinking about this walkable city she loved in rural Pennsylvania.
Beal, 36, remembered the rural park, the surrounding hills, its coffee shops and restaurants and the hollow antique shop.
“When we first knew we were not renewing our lease in Florida and my job would give me time off, we were both like ‘Bellefonte,'” Beal said recently. “We missed it. Where we lived in Florida, there was no walkability at all. You have to drive everywhere.”
Last month, the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship launched a program called “The Wilds Are Working: A Remote Lifestyle Experience,” with the goal of luring remote workers like 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 selected as pilots for the program.
Rural “Zoom Cities” across the country have launched similar programs, some of which give workers $ 10,000 to move there for a year.
In Pennsylvania, the five applicants selected for each city receive free temporary housing. In Bellefonte it will be a full month, mostly in bed-and-breakfast, from July. The selected remote employees will also receive digital gift cards that can be used at certain companies in the Wilds region. Recipients will be encouraged to volunteer locally.
Bellefonte’s application window is closed, but Kane is still accepting applications for his teleworking stay, which runs from September 14 to October 14.
The Pennsylvania Wilds consist of part of Center County and 12 other rural areas of northern Pennsylvania, west of Harrisburg. Although the region has been an outdoor destination for camping, hiking, fishing and hunting for centuries, the official Pennsylvania Wilds Tourist Office was started in 2003, with the aim of attracting even more people to it. Some of the most popular destinations include Cherry Springs State Park, a National Stargazing destination, Elk Country Visitor Center and the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon along Pine Creek.
In the early months of the pandemic, when the outdoors seemed to be the only safe space, buzz grew around the Wilds region. Getting a campground in Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County was a long shot.
“Today, people do not have to limit outdoor recreation to a vacation or a weekend getaway,” said Abbi Peters, Chief Operations Officer at the PA Wilds Center. “They can access all of these outdoor recreation opportunities we have after work.”
It is still unclear what lasting effect the nation’s shift to teleworking will have on cities and office buildings, whether workers will ever return in large numbers. In the early months of the pandemic, real estate agents in rural Pennsylvania told The Inquirer that their phones rang day and night with city residents looking for rent or purchase. During COVID-19 lockdowns, some records in the Poconos played on fear, promising a COVID-free environment, and elected officials urging people to stay away.
“There’s noise, but it’s usually just the wind,” a Manhattan resident who moved to Sullivan County, Pa. Told The Inquirer last year.
Some who left the cities got a quick rural lesson in America’s biggest drawback – poor internet service – but it’s a case that has rarely received bipartisan attention from all elected officials and federal officials between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Beal and her fiancé, Lance, who is a partner in a card and game store in Bellefonte, rent a home close to the stores on the High Street, where the signal is strong. Both have family in the more rural areas outside Bellefonte, where there are spotted connections.
“I need high-speed Internet for my job, so it narrowed it down,” said Beal, who works for an airline.
In Bellefonte, there is both an outdoor work area in Talleyrand Park and Bellefonte Springboard, a collective working office a few blocks away. This is where Jennilyn Schuster, head 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 really had to rethink because so many things are focused on Penn State,” she said. “We had 20 companies open during the pandemic, but they really had to turn around because they suddenly could not trust Penn State.”
Bellefonte ticks off fields that younger workers might be looking for, Schuster said. There is a yoga studio, a craft brewery and a distillery along with a hotel being built along Spring Creek. Bellefonte Under the Lights, a major outdoor dining event along the creek, draws close to 1,000 each year.
“It’s also just a nice, quiet place to live,” she said. “A lot of people also move back here after they retire.”
At the URBN Flavourhaus, a coffee house on the High Street, manager Carol Nihart said she welcomes the teleworkers, whether for a month or longer. She just asks that they follow the unwritten rule of teleworking in coffee shops.
“Yes, come and work in here,” she said. “But please buy something.”