John Provo refers to the tattoo peeking out from under his shirt sleeve as his midlife crisis. Really, it’s more of a love letter to his vocation.

The parade of tools inked up his forearm — simple line drawings of a woodman’s ax, a hunter’s bow, a shepherd’s crook, and so on — represents an economic development theory known as the Valley Section, first sketched by Scottish naturalist Patrick Geddes in the 1920s. For Provo, executive director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement (CECE), part of Outreach and International Affairs, the tattoo is a daily reminder of economic development at its most elemental. “It’s about people, it's about places, and it’s about how work functions,” he said.

The tattoo, of course, doesn’t feature a laptop, the tool of choice for remote workers everywhere.

Yet the rise of location-independent workers, whose ranks have grown by an estimated 44 percent in the past five years, has become an urgent issue for communities across the commonwealth. Some rural leaders pin their hopes on remote workers to stem population loss. Others are grappling with an influx of new arrivals. “I think remote work is going to be a feature of everything we do with communities in the future,” Provo said. “This is where the talent discussion is headed.”

What makes remote workers flock to some communities and cold-shoulder others? How can towns deal with both the opportunities and the challenges they present? This spring, graduate students in an economic development studio class co-taught by Provo and Sarah Lyon-Hill, CECE’s associate director for research development, set out to answer those questions with a research project whose findings have real-world application for communities around Virginia. "It’s beyond just turning a paper in to your professor,” Lyon-Hill said. “At the end, students are turning in something that could be very valuable to a community.”

Photo of John Provo's tattoo of the economic development theory known as the Valley Section. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.
John Provo's tattoo of the economic development theory known as the Valley Section. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Impacting real communities

The remote work project rose out of a pilot study of Virginia communities done by Matt Wagner, chief program officer for Main Street America and a remote-working transplant to Virginia, and Courtney Mailey, state coordinator of the Virginia Main Street Program. Provo heard them speak at a conference and instantly proposed involving students in his economic development studio class, a capstone course for students earning a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Some of the communities in Wagner and Mailey's study, such as Buena Vista, were hoping to attract remote workers to grow the local economy and stem brain drain. Marion wanted more remote jobs for its residents. Meanwhile, Luray was awash in remote workers who were starting to clash with locals. “There's definitely a wealth gap between Come Heres and From Heres,” Mailey said, “and different expectations about amenities.”

Luckily, Wagner and Mailey embraced the idea of collaborating with Virginia Tech to extend their remotability study. “This relationship with Virginia Tech brings additional credibility to the importance of the work,” said Wagner, adding that for students, it’s “a chance to be connected to something bigger than the university, to be embedded in programming work that could impact communities.”

Photo of Sarah Lyon-Hill
Sarah Lyon-Hill
Photo of John Provo
John Provo

Four kinds of remote workers

No one had to convince the 10 students in the studio class that remote work mattered. They were scattered between Northern and Southwest Virginia, meeting via Zoom to accommodate their geographic diversity. Several students held hybrid or remote jobs themselves.

So they dove into the research with a mixed-methods approach that included online surveys, one-on-one interviews, and analyses of data gathered from sources like census population studies and traffic data. “We’re really learning what assets exist in the communities that can be promoted to increase remote work as well as what challenges should be addressed in order to make remote work more feasible in the future, like broadband availability and public transportation,” said Allison Ulaky, an Arlington-based graduate assistant who worked remotely for CECE. “Housing is a huge issue for remote workers as well.”

From their research, students found that remote workers are disproportionately urban but that a “donut effect” is in play. Of remote workers who moved, 60 percent stayed within the same metro area — they just shifted from the urban core to the suburban periphery. 

Students also divvied remote workers into four typologies based on their driving motivations when it comes to locations:

  • Urbanists crave urban amenities like social diversity, entertainment, economic dynamism, and infrastructure.
  • Salary Stretchers search out communities with a lower cost of living, especially for housing, to maximize their disposable income and quality of life through geoarbitrage.
  • Nature Lovers value outdoor recreation and seek out natural amenities and scenic landscapes when they relocate.
  • Boomerangs move to maximize their emotional ties with people and places and often move to get closer to their families, hometowns, or places they’ve lived in the past.

Not every community is primed to attract every kind of remote worker. But whether a place is urban, suburban/exurban, or rural, most communities appeal to someone.

After looking at nine case-study communities — Marion, Vinton, Clarksville, Hopewell, Isle of Wight, Gloucester, Leesburg, Harrisonburg, and Charlottesville — the students also made recommendations for how locations can attract remote workers: for instance, building public-private partnerships with co-working spaces, expanding access to public space Wi-Fi, rezoning to allow more diverse and affordable housing options, working with local land management agencies to protect natural amenities from degradation, and adaptively reusing or demolishing vacant or blighted structures. 

A game-changer class

For Virginia’s smaller and rural communities, learning how to capitalize on the remote worker boom could be a game-changer — just as the experiential learning–based studio class has been a game-changer for students. “It’s an opportunity to get out there and really work with communities,” said Lyon-Hill. “It gives the hands-on experience to say, ‘This is how I can take the tools that I've learned as a student and really apply them in a way that is effective and actually helps to create change.’”

For Ulaky, the proof is in the pudding. By midway through the last semester of her master’s program in urban and regional planning, she’d already lined up an economic development research job. The position is based at a nonprofit in Arlington, where Ulaky lives. But as with every other job she’s held in the past few years, she’ll be working remotely at least some of the time.

The Center for Economic and Community Development works regularly on community-based projects for towns and cities throughout Virginia. Contact John Provo or Sarah Lyon-Hill with your idea. Make an online donation to CECE to help train the next generation of economic development professionals through the studio class. 

Written by Melody Warnick