“Try before you buy” is a classic sales maneuver: Car dealerships want you to test drive. Costco wants you to sample. Clothing stores want you to hit the dressing room. And West Virginia wants you to come live in the Mountain State and see if you want to stay forever.
When West Virginia’s program was announced in April, about 7,500 people from 74 countries applied to move to Morgantown, which is home to West Virginia University. According to the Ascend website, the city has 1,400 climbing routes, 200 mountain-bike trails, 100 paddling runs and access to seven different ski areas.
In the end, 50 people were chosen, and about 10 have made the move, including Samantha Fagan, a web designer and WordPress developer who was living in Berlin when she applied.
Fagan is used to the digital-nomad lifestyle. She has done programs for weeks at a time with Hacker Paradise in South America. During her year dedicated to traveling the world, she moved to Berlin on a freelance-artist visa while spending a year on the road. Then the pandemic hit.
“I’ve always gravitated towards big cities,” Fagan said. “And then after being trapped in the city essentially for a year and a half because of the pandemic, I decided that the last thing I ever want is to be trapped in another city.”
Aside from the program’s financial incentive, Fagan found the social elements appealing. Having lived in a handful of places and traveled alone, she knew starting from scratch could be “so lonely.” With potentially 50 strangers moving with her, Fagan knew there would be people around her in the same position who’d be eager to make friends, too.
“We’re all in the same boat,” she said. “We’re all starting over.”
The move to Morgantown is a major departure for Fagan, who grew up in Arkansas and was determined to leave small towns behind. She called it a conscious decision to do the opposite of what she’s already done, keeping an open mind to a quieter lifestyle.
“It’s a try-it-and-see if I want it to be my forever home,” Fagan said.
The program’s organizers and the West Virginia tourism association think life in West Virginia will sell itself once program participants get there.
“All the things that make West Virginia a great place to visit are also things that make it a really great place to live,” said Chelsea Ruby, West Virginia’s secretary of tourism.
Brad Smith, the West Virginia native who donated $25 million to fund Ascend West Virginia and the university’s Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, said he believes the state has been challenged by a negative reputation for years, hindering it from becoming a major tourism destination or home for remote workers.
“Many people’s perception of West Virginia has been shaped by thinking of coal mines or thinking of reality TV shows where you have people out there that are just not representative at all of West Virginia,” said Smith, who is the executive chairman of Intuit.
Instead, Smith said, he wants the state to be known for being 16 percent cheaper than the national average of cost of living, or for its natural attractions.
The outdoor beauty caught the eye of Chicago resident Quintina Mengyan, the director of customer experience for Vivid Seats, who read an article about Ascend WV earlier this year. The program requirements seemed attainable, so she applied, hoping to swap her fast-paced lifestyle with one that has opportunities to go whitewater rafting and camping.
A couple of months and several interviews later, Mengyan was accepted, and she drove 10 hours to move into a Morgantown townhouse with her German shepherd, Oberon.
What has stood out in Mengyan’s short time in town has been the shift in her work-life balance, which she describes as “a breath of fresh air.” She has been hiking, and she volunteered to coach a local lacrosse team.
“It feels like it’s meant to be,” Mengyan said.
As far as payout goes, Mengyan and the other program participants will receive their $10,000 in monthly installments over 12 months. Participants have to pay taxes on the payments. And if they leave before the year is over, they do not receive the money for the rest of the months.
The applicants who weren’t accepted were encouraged to apply to an Ascend partnership with Rocket Mortgage to receive $2,500 in mortgage assistance if they wanted to move to West Virginia anyway. Smith says 19 people took them up on the offer.
Their other option is to apply for Ascend’s second host city, Lewisburg. Applications are open until Oct. 31. Next will be Shepherdstown, then a second Morgantown cohort — plus other cities around the state are working to start their own programs.
Of course, programs such as Ascend are not unique to West Virginia. With rent prices climbing again as people return to cities, several states and cities across the country are hoping to attract a new generation of remote workers with incentives and cheaper costs of living.
Tulsa Remote was a pioneer in the concept, offering remote workers and entrepreneurs $10,000 to move there for a year. More opportunities exist in Alabama, Michigan, Vermont and Arkansas, where they’ll even throw in a bicycle.
Airbnb has partnered with several programs with their own “try before you buy” concept. Program members can use Airbnb coupons in their new city to experience the destination before buying or renting.
Time will tell if life in West Virginia will work for transplants such as Mengyan and Fagan.
For now, with only a few weeks in Morgantown under Fagan’s belt, “West Virginia is just a big mystery to me,” she said. “A big, beautiful mystery. But I’m excited to explore."
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