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Smaller US Cities Try to Entice Digital Nomads with Lifestyle Perks

(FILE) Downtown Rocky Mount, North Carolina (Photo by Flickr user Vince Young via Creative Common License)

Smaller U.S. communities that once lost people to the big city hope to attract new residents as increased remote work makes it more possible than ever to live far from the office.

“Now that they have the flexibility, people are thinking about things in terms of cost of living, people are prioritizing what type of lifestyle they may want and that, oftentimes, can be connected to outdoors or different pursuits,” says Matt Micksin, a region senior director at Common, a co-living and rental apartment management company.

“Maybe I just want to be somewhere different, and I want to be somewhere I can do X, Y and Z activities, whether it's fly fishing, kayaking, hiking, all the things that I don't want to be out of touch with,” Micksin says.

Common is working to identify and develop remote digital hubs — work-and-play communities that are designed with the specific needs of teleworkers in mind.

“And that's things like, do you create soft partition walls, do you put an office in? Do you facilitate a different layout that makes it functionally easier to do the thing that all of us have been doing, which is having a laptop out, doing Zoom calls all day,” Micksin says. “Is there a better way to do that? We've all seen plenty of Zoom calls that were coming from someone who didn't have an ideal setup.”

The idea is to come up with designs that don’t require remote workers to pay for more room, like a second bedroom, to accommodate increased telework.

“That's really not an ideal solution,” Micksin says. “It’s going to cost more, you're going to have an inefficient layout, maybe you will have to spend more and not be able to get everything else you want, like location. But if you have an appointed one-bedroom [apartment] that has a thoughtful design, and it's provided to work from home, you can make that work and it's still the best way to have an effective residence. Or, if you know that I have a desk in the downstairs space that is mine, I can go and use that.”

Common remote work hub finalist in Ogden, Utah, near downtown and Powder Mountain, North America’s largest ski resort. (Photo WOW atelier/Design Workshop)
Common remote work hub finalist in Ogden, Utah, near downtown and Powder Mountain, North America’s largest ski resort. (Photo WOW atelier/Design Workshop)

Common organized a competition to identify ideal locations and concepts to develop remote work hubs that will provide housing and workspaces for digital nomads. One of the five finalists is a community in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a town of 54,000 that’s about an hour’s drive east of the capital, Raleigh.

The Rocky Mount Mills plan calls for developing a remote work hub in an old 9,290-square-meter cotton mill that closed in 1996. The surrounding site already has been redeveloped with commercial and residential spaces, as well as restaurants and breweries.

“You're immediately going to be plugged into everything from weekend events to evening events to a network of folks that are also in your similar position, different types of workspaces, everything from co-working to individual office suites to expansion areas,” says Evan Covington Chavez, a real estate development manager at Capitol Broadcasting Company, which submitted the bid to Common.

“Maybe there are some spaces where people can do presentations or have folks that need to come in or they're doing conference calls that require sort of a larger screen for presentation purposes. Having all of that sort of built into the model so that these are accessible for people are making it easy for people to make that decision.”

With a little village already in place, Capitol Broadcasting Company was eager to add a remote work hub component to the existing residential units.

“You can choose to work in your apartment, or you can choose to go down the hall to the private conference room or the co working space, or meet up in the beer garden, or grab some coffee at the coffee shop, all of these things that are just literally right outside your door,” says Covington Chavez. “You never have to hop in your car and find the nearest coffee shop, or discover where the local restaurant is, or find a quiet spot to be able to have a conference call. All that would be within walking distance from where you're living.”

Old cotton mill at Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (Photo by Carl Lewis)
Old cotton mill at Rocky Mount Mills in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (Photo by Carl Lewis)

Another finalist was the town of Bentonville, Arkansas, with a population of about 62,000 and approximately 209 kilometers of mountain biking trails that connect to the city’s downtown. The focus on lifestyle is a key element in the selection of the five remote hub finalists.

“Bentonville is perfectly positioned to be a remote work destination with a unique combination of a leading business community, world-class outdoor amenities, including being the mountain biking capital of the world, and big-city arts and cultural experiences,” Jared Faciszewski, real estate development and investment director for Blue Crane, which submitted the proposal to Common, told VOA in an email.

There are many unknowns because remote work hubs are a new concept designed to accommodate a changing workforce and undoubtedly will continue to be honed. Each solution is different for each location, but the bottom line for those in the remote workforce remains the same.

“They need to feel comfortable because they need to be effective, and they want to enjoy this newfound flexibility,” Micksin says, “and they don't want it to necessarily be something that creates complexity or inefficiency or adds extra cost.”