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Bellefonte, Kane, give remote workers free housing for a month

BELLEFONTE — When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through central Florida and workers settled in, remotely, at their kitchen tables or makeshift offices, Lauren Beal began to think of this walkable town she loved in rural Pennsylvania.

Beal, 36, recalled the bucolic park, the surrounding hills, its coffee shops and restaurants, and that cavernous antiques store.

“Once we knew we weren’t renewing our lease in Florida and my job was going to let me go remote, 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 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 the pilots for the program.

Rural “Zoom towns” across the country have launched similar programs, some of them giving workers $10,000 to relocate there for one year.

In Pennsylvania, the five applicants chosen for each town get free temporary housing. In Bellefonte, that will be one full month, mostly in bed-and-breakfasts, starting in July. The chosen remote workers will also get digital gift cards that can be used at certain businesses in the Wilds region. Recipients will be encouraged to volunteer, locally.

Bellefonte’s application window is closed, but Kane is still accepting applications for its remote working residency, which will run from Sept. 14 to Oct. 14.

The Pennsylvania Wilds is made up of a portion of Centre County and 12 other rural counties in northern Pennsylvania, west of Harrisburg. Although the region has been an outdoors destination for camping, hiking, fishing, and hunting for centuries, the official Pennsylvania Wilds tourism agency was initiated in 2003, aimed at drawing even more people there. Some of the most popular destinations include Cherry Springs State Park, a national stargazing destination, the 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 about the Wilds region grew. Getting a campsite at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County was a long shot.

“Today, people don’t 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 these outdoor recreation opportunities we have, after work.”

In the early months of the pandemic, real estate agents in rural Pennsylvania told The Inquirer their phones were ringing day and night with city residents looking for rentals or purchases. During COVID-19 lockdowns, some listings in the Poconos played on fears, promising a COVID-free environment, and elected officials there urged 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 lesson in rural America’s biggest drawback — poor Internet service — but that’s a cause that’s gotten rare bipartisan attention from every elected state and federal official between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Beal and her fiance, Lance, who is a partner at a cards and games store in Bellefonte, are renting a home close to the shops on High Street, where the signal is strong. Both of them have family in the more rural areas outside of Bellefonte where there are spotty connections.

“I need high-speed internet for my job, so that narrowed it down,” said Beal, who works for an aviation firm.

In Bellefonte, there’s both an outdoor working space at Talleyrand Park and Bellefonte Springboard, a collective working office a few blocks away. That’s where Jennilyn Schuster, manager for Downtown Bellefonte Inc., is working these days. She moved to Bellefonte in 2020, after working in architecture and design in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

“This town during the pandemic really had to rethink because so many things are focused on Penn State,” she said. “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.”

Bellefonte checks boxes that younger workers might be looking for, Schuster said. There’s a yoga studio, a craft brewery, and a distillery, along with a hotel being built along Spring Creek. Bellefonte Under the Lights, a large outdoor dining event along the creek, draws close to 1,000 every year.

“It’s also just a nice, quiet place to live,” she said. “A lot of people are moving back here after they retire, too.”

At URBN Flavourhaus, a coffeehouse on High Street, manager Carol Nihart said she welcomes the remote workers, whether it’s for a month or longer. She just asks that they follow the unwritten rule of remote working in coffeehouses.

“Yes, please come work in here,” she said. “But please buy something.”

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