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2021: WUPPDR Attraction and Retention of Remote Workers

Student-Led, Faculty-Guided Project (2021)

Authors: Abdulla Alzaabi, Jake Desrosiers, Steve Hemgesberg, Kelsie Martin, and Sax Morgan


As part of the 2021 Michigan State Practicum course, this project was completed by undergraduate and graduate students in the Urban and Regional Planning degree program. The Remote Working team worked in partnership with Jerry Wuorenmaa of the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region Commission to develop an initial strategy to attract remote workers to the Western Upper Peninsula region, and suggest a variety of non-monetary incentives to retain the residential workers within the Western UP. The team based their report on primary data that they collected in order to understand the current local demographics as well as the economic status in the given counties. This data plays a role in understanding which counties have felt the largest effect from the remote work transition stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and which counties have the most potential to grow. Using the collected data, the team developed strategies that the counties may initiate in order to attract outside residents to the region as well as promote and expand the accessibility of remote work.

Primary research findings included some important trends in demographics and amenities. The population has been steadily declining in the study area for decades and there is very little diversity. Vacant housing stock exists to accommodate remote workers; however, it may be seasonal in nature or generally not be located or designed appropriately to meet demand.  The natural resources and the scenic beauty of the area is its greatest asset, but the area is also remote and many parts of the region lack adequate internet connectivity that is necessary for remote work and many other aspects of modern life.

These strategies stemmed from a collection of case studies illustrating successful remote attraction plans implemented by other rural areas and regions with challenges similar to those of the Upper Peninsula. Case studies included West Virginia Remote Worker Program introducing the Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC) created to leverage the state’s outdoor recreation assets and stimulate economic opportunities by engaging the youth in outdoor programs and investing in STEM education. By building alliances with educators, state and local government, and the outdoor industry enthusiasts, the region can further define itself as enhancing the environmental quality and the quality of life for citizens. Bakersville, North Carolina was another case study introduced representing a small mountain community tucked beneath Roan Mountain. Bakersville over the past ten years was challenged by drastic job loss due to their mining industry becoming obsolete. As a result, civic leaders came together to form the Bakersville Improvement Group, with a plan to use arts and culture as a means of improving Bakersville’s downtown corridor. This plan included a new annual Rhododendron Festival as well as partnerships with Handmade in America, the National Forest Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Commission. Partnerships resulted in the construction of a one-mile paved walkway introducing catch and release trout fishing and includes handicap-accessible fishing platforms. The creek walk evolved into what became the first stage of a long-term plan to create parks, playgrounds, multi-use sports fields, and a gymnasium for the town of Bakersville. An incentive focused program that is presented as a case study is from Utah State University offering a remote work certificate as a method to help equip rural residents transitioning to remote work and seeking remote employment opportunities. Utah State University gives relevant educational experiences connecting people to modern employment opportunities and develops innovative solutions for community needs. The online initiative educates, coaches, and mentors the rural workforce. The Remote Work Certificate has shown to help reduce post highschool relocation and provide students with the knowledge, and attitude necessary to seek remote work opportunities. 

With one of the largest assets off the UP being nature’s beautiful scenery and wildlife we recommend promoting the lifestyle to would-be remote workers using a punch card/passport to challenge and intrigue participants. This will take them all over the region exploring and discovering the true “UP experience”-, and claiming awards along the way as hiking paths, scenic views, and community festivals are checked off the list. This generates incentives to a targeted demographic to explore some of the region's greatest assets.

With remote work becoming an economic focus the lack of internet bandwidth within certain regions creates barriers for job markets and remote workers looking to the UP as a remote work option. After analyzing the data and researching available opportunities, we recommend municipal networking. This network would be locally funded and provided by the government giving everyone within this range affordable high speed internet. When counties create their own internet and broadband, customers will ultimately get faster internet speeds, lower prices, and better customer service. 

While adjusting to these changes in the community it is important to advertise and promote migration through multiple means including social media. Utilizing a central platform to target your intended demographics by promoting events, internet progression, festivals, and economic opportunity can reach a lot of would-be residents. Highlighting newcomers through blogs and vlogs, and having them share experiences about these events, or discuss comparisons between their former home and life in the Upper Peninsula may help others to seek. Building a local brand and promoting the area’s low-cost, high-quality lifestyle together with improving internet access and educational and technical support for the remote workers are the report’s primary recommendations.

Author Information

Students in the capstone Planning Practicum class in their final semester in the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning Design and Construction at Michigan State University.

Faculty Member: Dr. Kotval

Community Client: Mr. Wuorenmaa