Sarah Holder/CityLab

The first class of hand-picked remote workers moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in exchange for $10,000 and a built-in community. The city might just be luring them to stay.

TULSA, OK — Obum Ukabam sits suctioned to his laptop in the middle of an open-plan coworking space, quietly typing. With its vaulted ceilings, rows of elbow-to-elbow workbenches and a Spotify-Chill playlist, the office exudes a vibe you might find in many a major U.S. city. And Ukabam could do his job from any of them.

This particular office, though, happens to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That’s where Ukabam and his wife moved last spring, sight unseen, after 10 years in Southern California.

The transition wasn’t made on a whim. Ukabam is a member of the first inaugural class of Tulsa Remote, an initiative launched in November 2018 that pushed people untethered by office jobs to pack up and move to Oklahoma. Those like Ukabam who work remotely and got through the competitive application process were promised $10,000 in installments over the course of a year, plus cheap housing and an upgraded social infrastructure.

The program reflects a new economic development strategy that Tulsa is among the first to pilot. Traditionally, cities looking to spur their economies may offer incentives to attract businesses. But at a time when Americans are moving less frequently than they have in more than half a century, and the anticlimactic race to host an Amazon HQ2 soured some governments on corporate tax breaks, Tulsa is one of several locales testing out a new premise:  Pay people instead.

Similar programs are being tried in Vermont, northwest Alabama, and most recently Topeka, Kansas, each with their own variations.    

Funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, an influential Tulsa-based philanthropy, Tulsa Remote is designed to put the small city on the national map, and shock it with a jolt of new energy, pulled from the outside in. It’s yet another step in Tulsa’s recent quest for self-improvement, as the erstwhile oil boomtown tries to boost its population and plant the seeds of a new generation.

The five-acre adventure playground at the Gathering Place, a sprawling new $465 million park. Other park features include a boating pond and a skate park. (Shane Bevel)

Some of Tulsa’s most prominent updates are visible in the city’s aesthetics and infrastructure: In the past 10 years, a mix of public and private dollars has helped build the sprawling $465 million Gathering Place park, a new Bank of Oklahoma convention center, and a revitalized Arts District. There’s a plan to build out more parks on the banks of the Arkansas River. A sprinkling of new breweries has appeared, emboldened by a recent relaxing of strict state liquor laws.

Much of this new development seems engineered to look like a Millennial playground. The problem, says Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, is there just aren’t enough people to play in it. After peaking in 2016, recent census data showed Tulsa lost population in 2017 and 2018, evening out at about 400,000 residents today.

Tulsa’s change in population mirrors Oklahoma-wide trends of slowing domestic migration and increasing out-migration for the past three years; almost all of the exodus is made up of people who are highly educated or of prime working age.

“The last few years have been the slowest population growth [in the state] since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s,” said Chad Wilkerson, branch executive of the Kansas City Fed’s Oklahoma City Branch office. “A good amount of it driven by the downturn of the energy sector in 2014 and 2015, and people seeking jobs elsewhere.”

As brains drain statewide, Tulsa is trying to plug the holes.

“The citizens of Tulsa have invested substantial public funds to build the types of things that we believe make Tulsa a more appealing place for a new generation of workers,” said Bynum. “And the Tulsa Remote program is really a great way to introduce the very kinds of workers that we’re hoping to appeal to, to the city that we’ve been building for the last decade to appeal to them.”

Convincing taxpayers of an experiment like this is easier because they aren’t being asked to foot the bill, Bynum says. The George Kaiser Family Foundation has used millions in private dollars to buoy the transformation, giving the foundation its own incentive to lure its pick of folks in.

“Mayors come and go,” said Ben Stewart, who works on childhood education for the George Kaiser Family Foundation. “But we’ve been a stabilizing force.”

If the lifestyle doesn’t draw these potential newcomers, the home prices might: Though the market is hot, according to Zillow, the typical home still sells for about $150,000, and the typical apartment rents for under $1,000.

A year after Tulsa Remote launched, the first participants — a mix of expats from expensive coastal cities, wanderlusty young adults, and those with roots in the region — say they’ve found many of the things they were looking for: a more comfortable and affordable quality of life, new neighbors they like, enough of an economic cushion to ease the stress of buying new furniture, and a fresh start. Many say they’ll stick around past the end of the one-year program. More than that: Some of them tell stories of positive personal transformation that are so dramatic, they might appear too perfect, almost canned. But after checking in with participants over the course of eight months, I found that many of them remained just as effusive. Maybe it’s something about Tulsa. Or maybe it’s something about Tulsa Remote.

***

When he lived in California’s Moreno Valley, Ukabam said he was slowly getting “beat down by life.” He’d sit at his computer, developing webinars for a company based in Los Angeles, about 60 miles away. Only brief calls to coworkers broke up the solitude of his workday.

Then he moved to Tulsa. He still did the same remote work. But because of the flexibility of that work, the rest of Ukabam’s life started to change. Now he’s directing, writing and acting in plays. He coaches a high school debate team. He helped open a new local branch of a national nonprofit, and is starting a new organization focused on empowering youth of color, which he plans to run right out of the coworking space, 36 Degrees North. He’s thinking of starting a family, something that was so expensive in California, it seemed selfish. He goes multiple places a day — work, Walmart, the Tulsa Ballet — and doesn’t have to worry about traffic!

“I feel alive again,” he said, ebullient under the fluorescent lights of the office.

Ukabam volunteers at a local school. (Tulsa Remote)

Remote workers like Ukabam make up one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country. According to an analysis of U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the remote work consultancy Global Workspace Analytics and Flexjobs, telecommuting grew more than 150% between 2005 and 2017. This year, the American Community Survey found that the fastest-growing commute was no commute, as work-from-home arrangements become more popular everywhere.

“It used to be that talent went where the jobs were,” said Aaron Bolzle, Tulsa Remote’s executive director. “That’s shifting.” Now, he says, it’s the responsibility of cities to create a community that someone would want to call home, and make sure people know to move there.

Data show that’s easier said than done. In 2018, fewer than 10% of Americans had moved in the previous 12 months, changing residences at the lowest rate since 1948. The kind of money Tulsa is offering isn’t enough to convince most people to pull up stakes, either: As a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found last year, “the average American perceives not moving as worth a sacrifice of more than 100% of income.”

To find the more mobile-than-average workers, Tulsa Remote cast a wide net. The only requirements: Applicants had to be over 18 years old, work remotely for a company based outside of Tulsa, and be eligible to work in the state. But given the high level of interest—“you have better odds of getting into Harvard or Yale than you do of getting into the Tulsa Remote program,” Bynum said—the selection committee, which didn’t include the mayor, could afford to be picky.

As Bolzle sifted through the 10,000 applications he received last year, he looked for a very particular kind of person. Someone who’d make a “positive impact.” Someone who’d be an “intentional participant in the community.” And most of all, someone who’d stay.

One “Remoter,” as they’re called in the Tulsa program, is a Harlem Globetrotter. Another runs an online finance site, helping people maximize their credit points. Others work in education, and online marketing, and consulting, and media. Of the 100 participants who were originally selected, 70 accepted Bolzle’s offer, and two left within a few months of arriving to the city. Forty percent of those selected were people of color, Bolzle says, though only 30% of those who chose to move were. The gender breakdown is closer to 50/50.

Among them was Christina Springer, a behavioral analyst for an educational platform who grew up in Northern California but has extended family in Norman, Oklahoma, who had been trying to get her to move back to the region for years. She’d settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and “pretty much avoided Oklahoma” until her aunt nudged her to apply.

Joanna Schreck, an operations manager and a proud member of the Yelp Elite for her ardent restaurant-reviewing habits, had already left a big city (New York) for a smaller city (Indianapolis), so she decided to do it again.

Madeline Kelley, who works in sales, joined Tulsa Remote because she wanted out of Brooklyn—even it meant leaving behind a boyfriend (they broke up her first week in Tulsa because long distance was too hard) and a group of friends she’d known for nearly a decade (who thought her move was “so random”). (Tulsa Remote)

Paul Gavin, a 29-year-old who creates online compliance training videos, applied after seeing a post about the program on Hacker News, and completely forgot about it until he got invited to interview. By May, he’d decided to leave L.A.

It was too expensive for Daryl Misrac and Dennis Howell to move in together where they met in L.A., but in Tulsa they found a three-bedroom, two-and-a half-bath for $1,200 a month. (Howell is the one who’s technically a Remoter, but the couple both work remotely.)

The endgame of Tulsa Remote is that these residents will help build a flourishing new economic ecosystem in town; they’ll start families and launch start-ups and tell their friends to come join them. There’s a “multiplier effect” expected of a project like this, even if the workers aren’t employed by Tulsa-based companies, said Pamela Loprest, a senior fellow and labor economist in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “They’ll create other jobs and [draw] other people into that area.”

***

On a warm Thursday night before Halloween, dozens of families cuddled up to watch a screening of Hocus Pocus on the sloping grass lawn of the Guthrie Green, a George Kaiser Family Foundation-funded park project in Tulsa’s Arts District. On one corner sits the Woodie Guthrie Center, marked by a mural of Guthrie holding his guitar that reads “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Its entrance is framed by Lime scooters, and the street beside it is torn up with construction. Nearby, there’s a bar called Valkyrie, which invites patrons to order by reciting a collection of taste adjectives that are translated into a bespoke beverage. By Saturday morning, the families on the Green are replaced by a couple of homeless residents who wander the block, asking for change.

Amid a renaissance, Tulsa’s famous Woodie Guthrie museum still draws crowds. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

The scene reflects the city’s contrasts — and its growing pains. Tulsa is still known nationally for the Race Massacre of 1921, which tore the city’s once-vibrant Black Wall Street apart. It left 300 black residents dead at the hands of a white mob, and up to 10,000 homeless. Symbolically, the city is attempting to grapple with its violent legacy with grace. It has convened a Centennial Commission to memorialize the lives lost in 1921 and honor Tulsa’s rich black history. And after decades of denial, local schools have brought those stories back into their curricula.

What Tulsa hasn’t yet repaired is the economic damage born from years of racial animus and the lopsided legacy of urban renewal. The city is still one of the most highly segregated in the country, with 41% of its black residents and about 20% of its Hispanic residents concentrated above Interstate 244, which severed the city to create the majority-minority neighborhood of North Tulsa when it was built in 1967. Those tracts are also home to the poorest Tulsans, according to Human Rights Watch, with 35% of its residents living in poverty compared to the citywide rate of 17%.

At its current scale, a project like Tulsa Remote is designed primarily to solve an economic and reputational problem, and doesn’t claim to have a chance of resolving those deeper tensions. More ironic is the program’s emphasis on domestic migration, as the Oklahoma legislature seeks to ban sanctuary cities in the state, and Tulsa debates its Sheriff’s Office agreement to turn over undocumented immigrants to ICE. But collecting a group of coastal wanderers may inevitably have political ramifications in a purple city that could affect what policy changes are possible.

Bolzle says he isn’t necessarily trying to get a bunch of liberals to move to Tulsa and turn the city blue. But the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s other citywide projects—early childhood education facilities, a vast manufacturing and industrial business park planned for the predominately black North Tulsa, and public housing renovations—more explicitly take equity as their goal. “After the 2016 election,” a lot of people were filled with this sense that “I don’t know my country,” said the George Kaiser Family Foundation’s Stewart. What better way to know it, he suggested, than to move to the middle of it?

(Sarah Holder/CityLab)

The implications of moving to Oklahoma worried a few of the Remoters I interviewed, especially those who were concerned for their reproductive rights in a state where 96% of its counties have no abortion clinics. Ukabam, who is African American, said he had “PTSD” from his experiences with racism growing up in the Midwest, and feared it would follow him and his wife here. (It hasn’t, he says.) Kate Wilson, who works for Cornell University as an enrollment advisor, told me that she was expecting something smaller, more conservative, and less cosmopolitan.

But the prospect of spurring “social change” was attractive. Bynum, a Republican who starred in a TED Talk about the power of dismantling partisan rhetoric through data, ran for mayor only 10 years after moving back home to Tulsa, and says the tight-knit nature of the city makes it an especially easy place to make waves.

Hodges Bend, a local coffeeshop/bar where lots of Remoters hang out. (While meeting Schreck and Wilson here, the author also ran into Bolzle.) (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

There’s disagreement over what kind of transformative impact any small group of out-of-towners can — or should — have on a community with an identity of its own. “Tulsa Remote isn’t the ‘hail Mecca’ of people coming in and saying, ‘Let me fix this city,’” said Wilson. “Tulsa is not that broken.”

***

One Friday night, a group of Remoters squeezed onto a bench under a vaporwave-tinted tent, gripping beer pints. Corralled by the inexhaustibly affable Bolzle, they’d all traveled to Tulsa’s annual Oktoberfest celebration via school buses, sitting two by two. The couples do-si-doed and conga-lined, and sang along to Dorfrocker, a German band flown in for the occasion.

The program is set up to foster this kind of curated collegiality from the start: Bolze and his team organize happy hours and trivia nights and outings to citywide celebrations. There’s a Slack channel and a newsletter and constant group texting. To facilitate interaction with the rest of the city, Bolzle started a Facebook group with the Tulsa Remote crowd and about a hundred local friends and acquaintances, hand-picked to offer authentic recommendations.

The result is a built-in community that, for those who choose to embrace it, makes moving across the country a bit like going to college, or summer camp.

“You’ll be sitting there, talking to someone — maybe you’re talking about going apple picking or something, and somebody on the other side already has it planned,” said Wilson. “The responsibility probably has fallen on all of us in our own social circles to be the organizer, whereas here it’s, you can literally sit back and say, plan it. And everyone does.”

(Sarah Holder/CityLab)

Despite efforts to burst the remote-worker bubble, a few have remained trapped inside it. Most days, Gavin, the one who moved from L.A., posts up at a coffee shop and works. At night, he tinkers with his burgeoning cryptocurrency start-up or meets up with friends he knows through Tulsa Remote to go bowling or get a drink.

“I wouldn’t say that I made friends with local Tulsans and I would like to, for sure,” he said.

He senses that there’s a real optimism here for what’s to come, but right now, Gavin says Tulsa feels like a blank slate. “It’s not really the South. It’s not really in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s kind of a little of a cultural void — that’s what it’s felt like to me.”

Springer disagrees, touting Tulsa’s vibrant music scene and its deep sense of local pride. “People from Tulsa say they’re from Tulsa,” she said, “and people from Oklahoma just say they’re from Oklahoma.” But her local-ish roots have helped her make more Tulsan friends, and she’s more perceptive of the ways people receive her and the program in town. About 70% of the people she meets “are like, ‘yay,’” she says, but another 30% are resentful. “Nobody paid me $10,000 to live here,” they say.

Some Reddit commenters share those concerns. “I get what this program is about, but it’s [sic] kind of rubs me the wrong way. All this program tells me is we don’t like native Oklahomans we only want coastal elites moving here,” wrote one user, who added that they grew up in Tulsa and moved back after college. “[I] currently work remote, and am considering leaving again. 10k would have went a long way in convincing me to stay.”

Though it puts them at a significant advantage in a city where the median income is $45,894, Bolzle says the $10,000 is just meant to take down the barriers to moving, not let them jump income brackets. And it helps that the program is funded by a philanthropy, not taxpayers.

There are other perks involved, too. All of the Remoters get a free one-year membership to the coworking space, though others prefer to work at home, perhaps because for some of them, home is a luxury apartment building downtown where they receive subsidized rent — another part of their welcome package. They’ve been granted a group meeting with the mayor, and have an ally in Bolzle, who acts as a quasi-case manager.

“If you come to Tulsa Remote and tell them you want to be a circus clown, best believe they’re going to find a way for you to be connected with the circus clowns of Tulsa,” says Ukabam.

Executive director Bolzle acts as the glue that keeps the Tulsa Remote community together. (Tulsa Remote)

Bolzle spent his childhood in Tulsa, but during stints in the music and tech industries, he lived in Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. By April of 2017, he had moved home. It’s permanent, he says; he just bought a house in town. He’s part of the city’s burgeoning Boomerang Club, a group of mostly Millennials who grew up in Tulsa and came back. “There’s an incredible stickiness to Tulsa,” he said.

Educational work-away programs, like Teach for America (TFA) and City Year, have thrived here: Though Tulsa is often ranked at the bottom of the list of preferences for post-grads who have their pick of schools across the country, it also ends up having one of the highest retention rates of all the TFA cities. This winter, a Tulsa branch of the Holberton School coding academy opened as a joint venture with the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Though Libby Wuller, the branch’s executive director, says she wants a mix of local and outside applicants, the Kaiser Foundation is paying back a greater percentage of tuition for those who choose to stay after the program is over, and offering living-expense stipends. By 2025, Wuller says there will be 7,000 open tech jobs in the city for the coders to fill.

Where the real test of programs like these will come, Bolzle says, is whether people end up leaving, and when. Measured that way, their impact could take a decade to mature. For now, he’s pushing property ownership numbers as evidence of success: At least 25 participants from the first Tulsa Remote cohort have purchased property in the city, he says. One bought a $700,000 house.

In November, the George Kaiser Family Foundation launched an expanded application process for the second phase of Tulsa Remote. Even before the application went live, nearly 12,000 people had signed up for the wait list. By January, 5,000 had applied, the first had started arriving, and ten had bought homes. Instead of 100 roamers, Tulsa will officially accept at least 250; Grant Bumgarner, a Tulsa Remote staffer, told me that number could be closer to 500.

In the end, the stickiest thing about Tulsa for participants could be the web woven by the program. Of the 10 people I talked to for this story, the majority said they were planning to stay in the city after the program is over.

Ukabam now works as the Holberton School’s marketing manager (though he’s no longer technically remote, he’s still part of the program until his term ends in late March). Ukabam’s wife, who was working in Panera when they lived in Southern California, is now working as a culinary manager at the Gathering Place. “She’s finally getting to use her gifts and talents the way she always wanted to,” he said.

Springer, the Californian who has family in Oklahoma, says she’s staying “indefinitely.” Schreck had convinced her company to hire another employee already living in Tulsa to work by her side, but decided (“with tears”) to move back to Indianapolis, closer to family and snowy weather and the Eastern time zone.

Even a few participants who had initially told me they wanted leave when the program ended have now changed their minds. Howell was always firm about wanting to stay past the 12-month mark, because he joined a volunteer program that requires a year of training before he can start serving on the board. But back in October, his partner, Misrac, confided that she would rather be a snowbird, cycling through a few cities each year. By February, she had a better reason to remain: Bolzle had hired her to be Tulsa Remote’s community manager.

Wilson was once explicit in her desire to leave. “I cannot live through another summer here,” she said when I asked her this fall; for months, the temperature hovered between 90 and 100 degrees. But by February, she was effusive in describing her decision to renew her lease. “I like the people, the vibe, the energy of Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Wilson said. “It has everything I’m looking for.” As for the heat, “it just is what it is,” she said.

Gavin, who self-identifies as chronically unsure, wants to trailer camp in Oregon and Nevada this summer and hasn’t thought much about what comes next. But even without an incentive to stay, the lack of incentive to leave wields its own power. ”I would not have moved to Tulsa if I had been pinned to a full year in Tulsa,” he said. “The fact that I’m still here when I could have left whenever I wanted says something.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the date Tulsa Remote launched. It was November 2018.

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