Internet as a Relocation Incentive
BEMIDJI, Minn. — Lush forests, gleaming lakes and fast fiber optic internet have been the selling points for officials in a small northern Minnesota city of about 15,000 to lure new residents to the area.
Following in the footsteps of states like Vermont and West Virginia that have offered cash relocation reimbursements to entice new resident teleworkers, Greater Bemidji, an economic development agency, wanted to help give a little incentive to move to their area.
It worked. So far 51 people have moved to the area in the past year and a half as part of the 218 Relocate program, said Erin Echternach, assistant director of Greater Bemidji, in an interview Wednesday.
Overall, being able to offer strong internet service is important for economic development at every level, from appealing to businesses looking for a new office location to teleworkers looking for more fresh air once they are unchained from corporate desks, Echternach said.
“When we started this launch in February of 2021, we thought we’d have this two-year pilot program attracting at least 25 telecommuters, and we blew that out of the water in 11 months,” Echternach said.
The pilot program enticed new resident teleworkers to the small city with fiber optic internet, a $2,500 relocation reimbursement and access to the local chamber of commerce.
Then they cut the bonus to $1,000, and once that money ran out Paul Bunyan Communications offered its 1-gigabyte service as part of the package.
Now, new teleworking residents get six months of internet, a year membership to a co-working space and the local chamber of commerce, along with access to the local concierge “welcome wagon” spearheaded by Echternach and powered by volunteers.
It comes down to finding something that works “[for] your community,” Echternach said.
Paul Bunyan Communications has been one of the original partners of the program, helping fund its inception, but the goal was always to move the program to a more sustainable offering, she explained. That’s why the program switched to offering the specific services, Echternach said.
“It’s always been part of our mission statement: Take a lead role [in] economic development,” said Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor for Paul Bunyan, in an interview Thursday. “Back in [the] day, [it] was party line phone service. Today, it’s fiber optic broadband.”
Bunyan’s role also helps reinforce the member-owned communications cooperative by growing its numbers, Bissonette said.
“If people are moving here, they are most likely to get our internet, especially as teleworkers,” Bissonette said. “While we have competition in some areas, we are dominant because we are fiber.”
Paul Bunyan Communications began its quest to cover its 6,000 square-mile service area with fiber optic cable in 2004 by laying anything new or replacing old cables with fiber, he said. And the company is on schedule to have a completely fiber optic network later this year, Bissonette said.
“We could see it then,” he continued, speaking of 2004, “the internet was going to become our main source of revenue, not landline phone service.”
By the time the pandemic struck in 2020 and everyone was forced to use a lot more home internet, “we didn’t skip a beat,” Bissonette said, because the fiber optic network now has the capability to carry up to 10 gigabytes of speed to customers.
And the state’s leaders have praised the company for its initiative.
“I applaud Paul Bunyan for their leadership that has helped bring high-quality broadband to northern Minnesota,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., in an email statement. “Investments in broadband transform how we do business, provide health care, educate our children, create jobs, and more. I’m going to keep working to help build out broadband across the state.”
As more companies are following in Paul Bunyan’s footsteps laying fiber, Bissonette wants people to realize creating a strong network and fostering economic development in the area is good for the company’s bottom line. And he still gets a thrill every time he talks to someone who switched to the faster service from dial-up or satellite because it’s “mind-blowing” for people to realize the internet’s capabilities, he said.
“Not only is it a little self-serving [to attract new customers], it’s going to be beneficial for your company and is going to be beneficial for everybody,” Bissonette said.