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Econ 919 — Zoom town

Photo: Sabine Poux/KDLL

Working from home became the order of the day for many workers last March.

Since then, cities and states around the U.S. have tried to market themselves to remote workers — and their wallets.

“For the most part — and I’m generalizing — but it seems like people want a cabin in the woods by the lake, living that Instagram dream," said Gretchen Fauske, associate director of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. She's conducting a study on remote workers in Alaska.

"But also high speed internet so they can fulflill the demands of their tech job, wherever they are," she added.

Alaska seems like a natural choice for those looking to escape crowded cities amid the pandemic.

But Fauske said even before COVID-19, a lot of workplaces were already becoming more flexible for their employees.

Cassidi Cameron is the special projects manager for the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District. She works remotely herself, from Seldovia, and has noticed an uptick in remote workers there over the last several years.

“I don’t know if that option was really readily available 10 years ago, even," she said.

So, what makes a place attractive to remote workers?

Some Alaska cities, like Anchorage and Juneau, have launched formal campaigns to bring in more workers from out of town.

Fauske’s taken a look at campaigns like those all around the country. She said the places that did the best job retaining workers were focused on creating ties between them and the community.

“One community had sort of a concierge-type person whose job was to talk to the remote workers, help them connect — ‘Oh, you want to hike? Here’s some great hikes and here’s a hiking group you can join,'" she said.

Cameron said KPEDD hasn’t launched a campaign like that yet. She said before they do anything, there’s at least one major factor that has to change.

“The peninsula has pretty good broadband technology but it could absolutely be better," she said. "Especially when people are shifting to a remote work setting and that’s becoming more common.”

Improving broadband is KPEDD’s number one goal in its new five-year economic development plan.

“We realized that if we want people to move to the peninsula to live, work and play here, that’s going to have to be a huge factor," Cameron said.

KPEDD said in its plan about 84 percent of households on the peninsula have internet subscriptions. The statewide average is 88 percent.

However, the report said, broadband quality can be low while costs can be high, especially in more isolated peninsula communities. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is spending some of its federal COVID-19 relief money on building new communication towers to expand broadband in its underserved areas.

Cameron said she’s dealt with spotty broadband in her own professional life.

“To me, broadband is like electricity or water and sewer," she said. "It’s a critical utility, even, you could consider it that.”

Not all remote workers in Alaska stay for more than a season or a week. And while communities can’t make the same long-term investments in those workers as they can in others, Fauske said, they bring in new dollars to an area, too.

The Boardroom is a coworking space in Anchorage where workers can book rooms and offices. It said in an August newsletter it had a steeper increase this summer in users who were visiting Alaska for the first time. Many of those workers, it said, had wanted to visit Alaska for a while and were able to do so when their companies allowed working from home.

It’s not just tourists from out of state who could benefit from the pivot to a more virtual workplace. Fauske said the remote work option could also be important for Alaskans who live in more isolated parts of the state.

“And the part that's actually more exciting to me, is how Alaskans could prepare to join the remote workforce where they could live in Alaska, build their lives in Alaska, but perform in a job anywhere in the world," she said.

As for where the Kenai Peninsula stands, Cameron said she thinks more people and families are recognizing it’s a good place to live.

“But — I sound like a broken record — until we can make sure that we have broadband access that is consistent and reliable, I don’t think that we’re going to get that shift right off the bat," she said. "Because you can say all that stuff — ‘C’mon, it’s easy to work here.' But sometimes it’s not.”

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