JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s a nice place to visit, but you really want to live here — and we’ll even pay you to come.

That concept lies behind a request that Johnson City commissioners fund a two-year, $300,000 marketing effort designed to bring work-anywhere professionals to a city they may know only from the song “Wagon Wheel.”

Attractive small cities were competing for remote workers even before COVID. The pandemic accelerated a sense that well-paid folks who can work from home are more ready than ever to leave behind the drawbacks – and advantages – of major metros.

“We are already seeing remote workers come to the area, so it really makes sense that it’s something that we put a little more effort into to attract people to come here,” Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association (NETTA) Director Alicia Phelps said.

A team from NETTA, Visit Johnson City, and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership developed the plan, which they presented to commissioners Thursday night.

The Commission ultimately voted unanimously to grant the group $100,000 to kickstart the marketing campaign in an effort to attract remote workers.

At least one recent informal study bears out Phelps’s claim about in-migration. A Tuesday press release from PODS — the company responsible for those mini-shipping container-style rectangles — referenced an internal study showing the top 20 cities that had the highest net amount of PODS customers moving in versus moving out.

“You know, we’re just curious to know where our customers are moving to. And of course last year with the uncertainty of the pandemic. It was definitely you know a unique year for all of us, so we wanted to see how the pandemic affected how our customers were relocating across the country. So that’s kind of why we, we wanted to dig into that data. And that’s how we put together our top 20 cities,” Trent Brock of PODS told News Channel 11.

Boise, Idaho was tops, followed by three East Tennessee locations — Johnson City, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Asheville, N.C. was sixth.

Jose Castillo

Jose Castillo thinks the city has plenty of opportunity to see such an investment yield a good return. Castillo runs Spark Plaza, a downtown co-working space, and said he’s seen increasing numbers of remote workers from that vantage point.

“Now is the time to step on the gas,” Castillo said. “In the last couple weeks I’ve talked to somebody from California, Atlanta, Asheville, New York, Chicago and they all want to be here.”

The effort would combine marketing efforts touting the region’s livability and abundant outdoor opportunities with a financial enticement. Relocating workers who meet all the criteria and stay at least a year could bag cash incentives totaling up to $5,000 depending on their annual income.

The plan primarily targets people who work in the IT, finance/insurance and “professional/technical” sectors, people like Brad Eshbach, who just moved back to his hometown after 11 years in Chicago — without changing employers.

Remote worker Brad Eshbach recently relocated from Chicago to Johnson City.

Eshbach said the pandemic ramped up the number of companies allowing employees to work remote and that plenty of Chicagoland workers are looking around.

“A lot of people who have had to spend the majority of their career building their life around proximity to their job going, ‘ok if I just made my job in proximity to where I went to live my life,'” Eshbach said. “Suddenly you got a whole group of people saying, ‘well, what do I actually want?'”

NETTA, NETREP and Visit Johnson City studied average wages, numbers of employed and economic impact on three cities that could target people to pick up stakes — Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco.

NETTA would oversee administrative details. The goal, of course, is to get people to come and put down roots, Phelps said.

“They’ll tell others about it but then they’ll probably end up staying. That’s typically what we’ve seen with other similar cities.”

The proposal includes $100,000 for recruitment incentives. Workers earning $50,000-$60,000 annually could get $2,500, $60,000-$70,000 could get $3,500, and those making more than that could qualify for $5,000.

PODS found East Tennessee was a very popular place for in-migration during the pandemic. (Courtesy PODS)

One-fourth of the money would be paid on arrival. Another quarter would come after six months of living and working in Johnson City/Washington County, and the remainder after the person has lived here a year.

During that year, participants would also be expected to participate in networking meetings and events and provide feedback to NETTA and its partners.

“It’s not gonna be just people coming here and it’s a free for all and you get money,” Phelps said. “It’s going to raise our median income, it’s going to diversify our economy … when that happens you see a lot of entrepreneurships take place, a lot of the remote workers have side businesses.”

The effort is part of a new and different arrow in the economic development quiver, NETREP CEO Mitch Miller said.

“One of the things that we really also seem to that, what really seems to stand out even more now that quality of place matters more than anything, not so much quality in the workplace but quality where you live, and workers are really starting to understand that and appreciate that and they want to retain the talent that they work hard to get. And I think a lot of that holds true as we think about Johnson City as a whole in the community. We want to be to also retain talent that’s going to do things like raise our household income, create economic opportunities for other people and be a multiplier in terms of job creation spending, and ultimately help the city grow,” Miller said at the commission meeting Thursday.

Traditional investment has involved incentives to companies relocating factories or brick and mortar sites. The incentives tend to be large, but benefits include the property taxes for buildings and for the equipment inside them.

Picking off people and families with efforts like this one brings a different benefit, but one local leaders are keen on.

“When you compare a salary of an individual from an economic impact statement, we estimate this to have a bigger impact than recruiting a company – at least as it relates to people,” Miller said.

He said one aim is to diversify the economic base of the area and raise the median income. Higher-paid households tend to contribute more to the tax base in a sales tax driven location such as Johnson City.

Spark Plaza’s Castillo said the transplants bring more than just good incomes and a boon to the real estate market.

“We’re also seeing culture, we’re seeing new and diverse people from all over the country, all over the world that are coming to this region and that just makes everything better.”

He said a growing array of amenities is improving the city’s attractiveness — from mountain bike trails and breweries to Brightridge’s fiber to the home internet offering up to a gigabyte of synchronous download and upload speeds.

“We need super fast internet, which we have a gig here from Brightridge,” Castillo said.

“I need coffee, I need alcohol and I need food – and we have all that within a stone’s throw from here and that’s what people want in remote work.”

For his part, Eshbach is excited about the growth potential for a place he didn’t necessarily want to leave in the first place. He left for Chicago a few years after graduating from East Tennessee State University because he wanted to make what he called “big moves” in his career and follow his occupational passion.

“That wasn’t necessarily possible in the place I came from but now it is,” Eshbach said. “Now I can do the thing I love in the place that I love.”

He said he won’t be surprised at all if the marketing campaign proves the start of something even bigger.

“There are things that we take for granted in our area that we need to just tell people,” he said. “We need to not bury the lead. In the best way we’re a little bit of a well kept secret, but I think there’s just more people looking around.”

Eshbach said dynamic professionals considering relocation should definitely check out the area.

“Do you want to be in a place, a critical moment over the next couple decades as a city really becomes a juggernaut? That’s where Johnson City’s trajectory is. Do you want to come be a part of a place building its own future?”

At the Johnson City meeting Thursday, Commissioner Aaron Murphy voiced concerns about rushing into things. Commissioner John Hunter urged Johnson City may be falling behind and argued they are not rushing enough.

The partners had a response:

“We’ve talked at length about the timeline on this, there’s a lifespan, on being able to recruit these remote workers that are making these moves. Ideally, we’d like to get the funds to start the marketing initiative as soon as possible, and then into the next budget out cycle for the balance of the funds,” Alicia Summers of NeTREP said at the meeting.

To watch the full Johnson City Commission meeting where the body unanimously moved to fund the partners with $100,000 to kickstart the marketing project, CLICK HERE.