COVID Could Create Silver Lining For West Virginia's Economy
As the coronavirus pandemic lingers in the United States, and as many who can, continue to work and live in the narrow confines of their home, Americans are taking a long, hard look at why they live where they live. For many, the question has become, ‘if I can work from anywhere, why am I living here?’
“We're seeing that people not only want a less dense neighborhood, they want less overcrowding within their own particular home,” said Jessica Lautz -- vice president of demographics and behavioral insights for the National Association of Realtors. “So they need more personal space. But they also are looking for a place with a yard or acreage, a place where you can get fresh air without having to worry about your neighbors who could be an unattached apartment or condo building as well.”
Lautz said they’re seeing people start to migrate out of cities and into suburbs and small towns.
“I actually think that it might expand the American dream to some people,” she said. “If you can take advantage of low interest rates right now and perhaps you can look at a more affordable place to move and have a bigger home than perhaps a crowded city center. This could open up a lot of opportunities for people to purchase their first home, to be able to raise perhaps their family in a larger single family home than they could have imagined.”
Which poises places like West Virginia at the precipice of opportunity.
For decades, West Virginia has been losing population, with aging communities and many people moving away to find better economic opportunities. It’s a problem that politicians have been talking about for years. And in an unexpected way, some experts believe coronavirus could present a solution -- if leadership moves fast enough.
“I think West Virginia has a lot of potential and we need to just start to recognize this potential and really start to market ourselves to remote workers,” said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.
“People see potential to live in a less congested environment, and a lower cost of living environment, in an environment where they can enjoy some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities in the country with whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, etc. And they can still work their normal jobs in a big city. It can be a real win-win for a lot of people in a lot of cases.”
New York to West Virginia
Mila Palasin and her husband Ken Magill have lived in Central Valley, New York, about 45 minutes north of Manhattan since 2008. Magill, a freelance writer, had been working from home for years, while Palasin had been spending about 20 hours of her week commuting about into the city for her advertising job. When the pandemic hit New York City, though, she stopped commuting.
But moving home to work had no impact on her ability to do her job and a huge impact on her quality of life. And so, an idea was born.
“Very quickly, like within a day, we discussed it and we're like we need to move,” said Magill.
The impetus was economic. Magill said they pay $12,000 each year in taxes on their New York home. If they could cut down on some of those taxes, they could put more in retirement and raise their standard of living.
They started looking at where they wanted to live.
“So we started looking at different areas. And we eliminated Georgia and and North Carolina and South Carolina, Florida is a little hot and hurricany for our taste,” he said. “And then we finally settled on West Virginia and made the decision. Like, we made the decision on a Tuesday. The following Wednesday, I was down there putting an offer on a house.”
Magill said for them, moving to West Virginia will be a game changer. They were able to buy a home in Charleston with cash pulled from their retirement accounts. Magill said once their New York home sells, they’ll put the money back in that account. But they are excited about the opportunities moving to West Virginia will bring them.
“Now, I understand you have issues in that state — I get that,” he said. “But I'm also thinking we might be part of a wave that drives West Virginia's economy forward.”
“We're going to be renovating, we're going to be buying appliances,” Palasin said. “We're going to be painting, we're going to be, you know, doing all sorts of investment in our new home, and that will go straight into the local economy.”
Palasin and Magill are moving to Charleston -- one of the only places in the state with fast enough broadband for them to work remotely. Lack of broadband outside of the metro areas, is really going to cripple West Virginia’s ability to capitalize on this migration Deskin said.
“For most areas of West Virginia, this discussion has no relevance. For places like Pendleton county or Pocahontas county where the Internet is just lacking, they have to bring in the Internet first before they can really participate in this discussion.”
And the window for participating, he said, may be right now, as the pandemic is still in the forefront of people’s minds, pushing them to rethink how they want to work and live.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.