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In August, the co-living company Common released a request for proposals from U.S. cities that wanted to host a “Remote Work Hub” — a kind of office-plus-apartment complex aimed at young digital nomads. This week the companyannounced five winners of this quasi-competition, who will now move on to the workshop phase: Developers in New Orleans; Bentonville, Arkansas; Ogden, Utah; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; and Rochester, New York. Their prize is design expertise and a marketing boost from the Common team.
Common, a six-year old company that manages shared living spaces in nine U.S. cities, is betting long on remote work, trusting that the employment style, which has been growing in popularity for years, will survive, and that the cities poised to rebound economically will do so by absorbing the perpetual-WFH crowd. The plan,the company said, predated the coronavirus pandemic, and the live-work facilities themselves wouldn’t break ground until Covid-19 recedes.
The five cities vary widely in geography, population and cultural vibe. But what they share is a lower cost of living, an interest in diversifying their employment mix, and a tendency to slip under the radar in many of the current conversations about the post-Covid future of cities.
“We didn’t want to go into a place that already had a clearly established tech and creative scene,” said Brad Hargreaves, Common’s CEO. “We didn’t want to make the obvious choice of, say, an Austin, Texas, where it already is getting flooded with remote workers and is probably going to face its own housing crisis in the coming years.”
New Orleans is the largest and most well-known urban center on the list, but it, too, is hoping to expand its tourism-heavy revenue base and expand its pull with tech workers. Though the applications came from developers who had sites in mind, all had some form of buy-in from city leaders.Formwork Development’s submission to build “NOLA Workstyle” in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood was developed with the city’s regional economic development organization, and included a note of support from Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
“The mayor’s administration and the city as a whole is focused on economic diversification and growing the economy,” said David Hecht, the founder of Formwork. “The idea that got me most excited is that New Orleans could recruit people, not companies.”
Bentonville, a city of nearly 50,000 in Northwest Arkansas, is best known for being home to Walmart’s global headquarters. But the company town is also part of a regional bid to incentivize remote workers to move to Northwest Arkansasin exchange for $10,000 and a free bike. (Bentonville calls itself the mountain biking capital of the world.) After receiving more than 25,000 applications for the grant, the Northwest Arkansas Council is planning on announcing the first round of 25 recipients in February; a Common-branded building tailored to remote workers, submitted by Blue Crane LLC, could be another eventual selling point.
Rocky Mount is a former tobacco town that was home to the first People’s National Bank; more recently, it’s struggled with job losses, brain drain and several company relocations to Raleigh, the state capital 60 miles to its west. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, companies that were based in Rocky Mount were starting to make the decision to move to Raleigh,” said Evan Covington Chavez, a development manager for the Capitol Broadcasting Company, which submitted the proposal to Common. After Hurricane Floyd hit the riverside town in 1999, that “basically destroyed any chance of these companies rebuilding.”
But in the last few years, the trends of out-migration are starting to reverse: After a contentious debate, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles moved to Rocky Mount from Raleigh last year. With a plan to develop a 200-year-old former cotton mill into a remote working hub, the Capitol Broadcasting Company hopes to continue to attract new residents and encourage current ones to stay.
Rochester, too, is trying to turn its fortunes around after the slow fade of Eastman Kodak. The photography giantemployed more than 60,000 local residents at its peak in 1982, and it was joined by other Rochester-bred industrial employers like Xerox andBausch + Lomb, which gave the western New York city a robust core of well-paid technology jobs that endured well into the 1990s. Despite job and population loss since, the city retains its strong educational and cultural sectors, and Mayor Lovely Warren has beenemphasizing the region’s appeal to a new generation of tech workers. Submitted by Landers Management, Costanza Enterprises, and Rob Sands, the Common project is slated to span a seven-building campus at the banks of the Genesee River.
In Ogden, Utah, Outlier Realty Capital and Powder Development submitted a joint application to construct multiple remote work buildings, with locations in downtown Ogden and at the Powder Mountain ski resort outside of town. Building a physical site of gathering for remote workers could address some of the things that have been lost in the era of remote work, said Mayor Mike Caldwell in a statement.
“The immediate increase in telework certainly has had a significant effect on our businesses who rely on or deal in corporate travel, real estate, brick-and-mortar retail, and telecom connectivity, at least in the near term,” he said. “There is a great need to retain important cultural facets like a sense of belonging, direct and indirect apprenticeship opportunities, and the physical Town Square, just to name a few.”
Details are scarce on what co-working amenities these buildings will have, how many units will eventually be filled (though most estimate somewhere between 100-200), and when doors will open for occupants (the first hub is set to begin construction at the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022). It also remains to be seen if any one development is likely to substantially affect these cities’ appeal to the tech workers said to be toting their laptops from Silicon Valleyto new sites in Texas or Miami. But as cities move away from competing for businesses and instead toward attracting individual employees, offering the promise of living in a community of like-minded professionals who don’t have in-person interaction with their coworkers could go a long way.
“When you step back and think about how cities do that, it’s not just about giving money to workers,” said Hargreaves. “It’s about creating environments where they want to live.”
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