MORGANTOWN, West Virginia — Quintina Mengyan needed some air.
The client services director for online ticket marketplace Vivid Seats spent a year cooped up in her tiny
apartment during the pandemic. Mengyan, who like most of America
, couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right in her life.
“I felt like I was missing something,” she told the Washington Examiner. “I would move apartments every year, but I could never really find a place to call home.”
She had lived in Chicago for a decade. When
drove everyone inside, Mengyan thought moving to the outskirts of the city might make things better — but it didn’t.
On a whim, she and her boyfriend started exploring other places to live. That’s when they landed on
Ascend West Virginia’s homepage
The program was looking for individuals and families to move to the state. Those chosen would get $12,000 in cash and be required to stay for two years.
“We thought, ‘Let’s try it! The worst that could happen is that we don’t get in,” she said.
Just a few weeks later, the couple had packed their bags and headed to the
with their German shepherd, Orban, to start a new life.
“I am still in complete disbelief and shock that I am here,” she said. “The dominoes just started falling into place and everything started clicking.”
In the short time she’s been in West Virginia, Mengyan has gone hiking and kayaking, visited restaurants, and soaked up the local culture. She even scored a volunteer position as the head coach of
WVU’s women’s lacrosse team
“It was meant to be,” she said.
Her infectious enthusiasm for the state makes her the perfect pick for the 53-member inaugural class of Ascend West Virginia.
The other participants are from 21 different states and the District of Columbia. One is even relocating from
, to call Morgantown home.
The majority of applicants are coming from California, though no one from the Golden State has actually made the move yet.
The program is largely financed by Brad Smith, who served as Intuit’s president and CEO from 2008 to 2019 and is now the executive chairman of the company’s board of directors.
Smith was born and raised in Kenova, West Virginia, and said it’s always been his “dream to give back to the state that forever has my heart.”
He and his wife, Alys, gifted $25 million to West Virginia University, one of the largest donations in the school’s history, to fund new programs aimed at igniting the state’s stale economy. The goal is to leverage the state’s outdoor assets to enhance economic development.
“West Virginia will always be home, and I see so much possibility in its natural beauty,” Smith told the Washington Examiner. “With the right mix of creativity, collaboration, and resources, we can take advantage of those outdoor opportunities to welcome a new generation with the capability to revitalize the state’s economy. We believe that this investment will advance the state’s efforts to become the ‘Start-Up State,’ a model for the rest of the nation and the world to follow.”
Smith said the program has “already exceeded our highest expectations” and that in its first enrollment alone, it attracted 7,500 applicants from all 50 states and 74 countries around the globe.
The money Smith and Alys footed will provide initial funding for the remote worker program, which was created to entice individuals and young families to the state. The program, still in its infancy, targets fully employed individuals like Mengyan who live in other states but want to trade the hustle and bustle of the city for mountain life.
Matthew Worden, a system architect at Danfoss, a magnetic technologies company in Florida, is also part of the first class of modern-day pioneers ready to pack up and move to Morgantown with his wife and three children.
“I see an amazing opportunity for West Virginia to become an oasis in the mountains for idea exchanges, incubation, and serenity,” he said in a written statement. “As people move away from the coast and large cities, West Virginia makes an obvious destination.”
Participants who are accepted into the program receive a one-time incentive package that’s valued at $20,000 and includes $12,000 in cash payments and a year’s worth of free outdoor recreational activities. For those who didn’t make the cut, Ascend has encouraged them to reapply. If they don’t want to wait, West Virginia will give them $2,500 in mortgage assistance to move now.
“As soon as I heard how many applications were pouring in, I knew the team had to think bigger,” Gov. Jim Justice said. “If this many people wanted to live and work in West Virginia, we had to do everything we could to make that a reality.”
In all, the program will welcome more than 1,000 new remote workers to the state over the next five years, West Virginia’s tourism department said.
Boosting interest in West Virginia is vital for the state’s future. For generations, the state’s identity has been shrouded in coal, but experts say it’s time to diversify.
The 2020 census found that West Virginia lost a greater percentage of its residents than any other state in the past decade and is now the only state that has fewer residents than it did in the 1950s. Much of the decline is the result of jobs in coal and steel being wiped out. As the nation’s second-largest coal producer, West Virginia has lost 56% of its coal mining jobs since 2009 as power plants pivot toward renewable energy sources. Now, only 13,000 coal-associated jobs remain in the state.
It’s been a hard fall for some towns deep in the heart of Appalachia, where a decade ago, a high school diploma could score a six-figure salary.
has been the backbone of West Virginia for generations, the reality is that the industry has been dying despite empty promises from politicians to revive the sector.
Erasing the state’s heritage is not the aim of Ascend, Dr. Danny Twilley, assistant dean of the Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University, said.
“This is a generational state for a lot of people in the [coal] industry, but the program is not an all-or-nothing proposition,” he told the Washington Examiner. “It’s not just coal. It’s not just leaning into remote working. It’s not just leaning into startups. It’s not just leaning into our outdoor recreation resources. It’s about all of that coming together and saying, ‘We all have a place in the sandbox, and West Virginia can win if we all play together.'”
The program has gotten some pushback from residents in other areas that say bringing more economic opportunity to Morgantown, which ranks among the state’s wealthiest areas, does nothing to help the small cities and towns struggling to survive, some of which don’t even have access
“We are approaching this like the rising tide raises all ships,” Twilley said, adding that the program purposely picked places that had the highest likelihood of success.
“If you do this in places that aren’t as ready, it’s going to cost more and the likelihood of failure is going to be significantly more.”
Willamena Rogers, who was in town for WVU’s homecoming football game against Texas Tech on Oct. 2, said she has close family friends who live in the area and that she and her husband, Killian, have tossed around the idea of making West Virginia home.
“A few years ago, this wouldn’t be a topic of consideration, but it’s a gorgeous area and it’s a lot more family-friendly than Oakland, [California],” she said. “It’s not a done deal, but it’s definitely a consideration. It would help if there were a few more options to go to eat or to shop. Just a little more would tip the scale.”
But not everyone is on board with West Virginia shelling out so much money for the program. Instead, several small business owners said the state should focus on incentivizing businesses to stay before rolling out the welcome mat to strangers.
“West Virginia could bring people to the state, but you still need to have an industry,” Juliana Claudio, owner of Embellishments, a four-story mixed-use retail space in Fairmont, West Virginia, said. “Look at Colorado or Utah. Yes, people go there for tourism, but there are existing industries and businesses that bring people to the state. Here, we don’t have anything to bring people in other than hiking. For so long it’s been coal, coal, coal, but things have to change.”