In the fall of 2020 Shannon Milliman was looking for remote employment. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that a lot more work-from-home opportunities were available, but she had a different goal in mind. After almost 20 years of living in Portland, Oregon, she was ready to move to a more affordable housing market. She also wanted a new experience for her family of seven.
“My kids are growing; they’re not going to be with us forever,” she says. “And I felt like we were running out of time and I would love to have a chapter of our life where they had another experience, a different road to roam.”
When she secured a virtual job with Amazon in November, her next step was figuring out where to go.
“I looked on Realtor.com endlessly, at all the random states and all the random cities,” Milliman recalls. “I think I could have made a case for anywhere being wonderful.” She also remembered hearing about a program based in Vermont that was paying remote workers to relocate and become full-time residents. A quick search revealed several similar incentive programs across the country, and one in North Alabama
caught her eye.
“We launched Remote Shoals in June of 2019,” says Mackenzie Cottles, marketing coordinator for the Shoals Economic Development Authority (SEDA). The population of the four cities — Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia — that make up the Shoals area had become stagnant with only small and infrequent spurts of growth in recent years. Remote Shoals, a partnership program led by SEDA and the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, was conceived as a way to build brand awareness and draw professionals to the area. “You can’t find ‘the Shoals’ on a map,” says Cottle. “You can find our four cities, you can find the two counties, but the Shoals as a whole, of course, is not on a map. So, part of this program is to get the word out about our community and everything that we have going on.”
For decades, SEDA has focused on the economic development of Northwest Alabama by recruiting and providing assistance to companies planning new or expanded facilities in the area. Tech companies are among the most sought after, and SEDA noticed that many of those companies had a lot of remote workers.
“So, we started to explore the idea of going after individuals in addition to companies,” says Cottle. “Tulsa Remote had started their program in Oklahoma and they were doing some really cool stuff there.”
The Remote Shoals program was approved in late 2018 and set a goal of recruiting 10 remote workers to relocate to the area, offering each $10,000. “We kept [our focus] on the tech field for year one,” says Cottle. “And we kept it small so we could work out all the kinks and make sure we were prepared for any growth that might come.”
Applicants must be at least 18 years old, eligible to work in the United States and either self-employed or employed by a company that isn’t based in Colbert or Lauderdale counties. And, unlike other similar programs, Remote Shoals requires a minimum annual income of $52,000. Once selected, participants have six months to relocate. They receive 25% of their award money immediately and another 25% six months later. The final half is awarded after they have lived in the Shoals for one year.
The pilot program, which ran from May 1, 2019, through April 30, 2020, was a success. The 10 remote workers who were selected brought an annual payroll of nearly $1.1 million, not including income earned by other members of their households. And they’re contributing to the local economy in other ways as well, purchasing houses and supporting local businesses. In fact, SEDA was so pleased with the results that when it kicked off year two of the program in June 2020, it increased its goal to 25 new residents and started accepting applicants from outside the tech industry.
“I’ll be honest with you, the first year looked completely different than this past year,” says Cottle. “We have seen a dramatic increase in interest in the program and applications.” The program received 430 applications in 2020. “Compared to some, that may not seem like much,” says Cottle. “But that’s 430 people who are interested in living in our community, and that means a lot to us.” And interest isn’t dwindling. The program received almost 600 applications in the first four months of 2021, with nearly 200 in April alone, a record month. A lot of that came from earned media, including features in FlexJobs and MakeMyMove.com. Remote Shoals also has recently partnered with Airbnb to offer coupons for rentals that allow people to “try before they buy” and get a better feel for their prospective new community.
“We’re finding that a lot of people are applying to multiple programs,” says Cottle, and the competition is growing. “We also know that we’re not exactly what everyone wants,” she adds. But Remote Shoals makes sure their candidates know what to expect. “In the interview, we ask questions like, ‘What is your ideal community?’ and ‘What would you miss most about where you currently live?’” Cottle explains. “So, if someone says their favorite part about where they live is public transit, we aren’t going to be able to offer that.”
What the Shoals does offer — affordable housing, low property taxes, low cost of living, lots of natural beauty and outdoor activities, and an overall laid-back pace — are what appealed to Milliman and her family the most. “The details [Remote Shoals] shared about the area enticed me,” Milliman recalls, adding that the musical culture and history of Muscle Shoals particularly appealed to her husband, who is a musician.
Milliman applied to the program and continued to browse other opportunities around the country but increasingly found that the Shoals was checking off a lot of items on her family’s wish list. “It emphasized things that really felt good to our core — the nature, the trails, the waterways. And we were open for adventure and uncertainty.”
Her five kids took a little more convincing, she admits. “But the more we showed them the size of the house we could afford and that we might be able to live near a creek . . . it started to remove the barriers.” When the Millimans were accepted by the program at the beginning of 2021, they planned to move in the early summer after their kids had finished school and within the required six-month relocation timeline. But when a real estate agent found their dream home, they made an offer, sight unseen and moved to Florence in March. “And we ended up living right on beautiful Cypress Creek,” Milliman laughs. “My son fishes all the time.”
The Millimans’ cross-country adventure is a highlight for Remote Shoals and underscores what the program is all about. “We’re looking for people who we think will be a great fit for the Shoals and we want the Shoals to be a great fit for them,” says Cottle. “We want this to be long term. We want people to come here and fall in love with our community and never want to leave. And we try to make sure that is exactly what they want too.”
“We’re still testing the waters and every day is a new experience,” says Milliman. “I’m beginning to feel like, yes, it will take time [to adjust], but not that much time. There’s a family, there’s community here. We’re going to have friends that become family soon. And it gives me a lot of hope that we’re going to be able to put down roots here.”
Katherine MacGilvray and David Higginbotham are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville and he in Decatur.