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Remote Workers Heading to Wyoming Amid Pandemic

2021-02-09 15:46:45

Ty Lunsford left Casper in 1998 – looking for, as he puts it, "bright lights, big city." He grew up here and left his parents' house to chase the action in Denver.

In November, after his job at a Southern California tech startup was permanently secluded, he packed up his home in Thousand Oaks and moved his family back to his hometown. This time he plans to stay forever.

"I never thought I'd see the day," laughed Lunsford. "But here I am."

Lunsford is part of a trend that is bringing Casperites back home to raise their families, as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it possible for people with office jobs to work anywhere. Casper, where the economy is heavily dependent on oil and other blue collar industries, can take advantage of this influx of diverse labor.

But in a state in desperate need of a financial boost, Wyoming will continue to miss out on the economic benefits of the newcomers, at least until lawmakers commit to long-winded reforms.

Lunsford, a resident of Casper, said that when he discovered his job would be remote forever, the decision to move back to Wyoming was a no-brainer, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.

"Rather than face the high cost of living in Southern California, I can come back here and live near my family," he said. "So from there I can keep my job and my salary and live here in Casper."

His parents still live here, and one of his sisters raised her family in Casper. Going back gives his children – 10-year-old Eli, 8-year-old Brody and 5-year-old Jake – a chance to grow up with their grandparents and nieces and nephews. Not to mention the state's lack of income tax means Lunsford will see an extra few hundred dollars in every paycheck.

Buying a home, even in the rapidly changing market triggered by the pandemic, also showed the benefit of going back to Casper. Lunsford said the amount they paid for a large house at the base of the mountain would make you a "two-bedroom mess" in Thousand Oaks, California. However, they had to act quickly – he said the homes they looked at in the $ 150,000 to $ 400,000 range were snatched within days of being put on the market.

Ryan Finlayson, who moved from Boca Raton, Florida, to Evansville with his wife Katie early this year, said they could afford a place with 20 acres of land. Katie's parents live here, and they've been talking about switching for a few years now. When Finlayson's orbit was downsized, all signs eventually pointed west.

His wife landed a job in restaurant management prior to the move and he plans to get his Wyoming real estate brokerage license to pursue a career in the real estate. After working for 80-hour weeks, he and his wife are looking forward to adopting a slower lifestyle in Wyoming. Ultimately, they also plan to start a family and thought the Casper area was the right place to do so. The low interest rates made the move and the acreage possible.

While newbies may have drawn to Wyoming through wide open spaces, the low prices don't hurt.

"The interest you pay probably affects what you can afford more than anything," said Casper broker Laurel Lunstrum. "So you can afford a lot more house with your money."

Lunstrum said she saw a 15-20% increase in people buying homes from out of state by 2020. Jim Edgeworth, who sold the Finlaysons their home, said people moving back to Wyoming accounted for about 3% of his total sales last year. Those people were usually parents looking for a family home or elderly people who wanted to retire in Casper.

“We were careful; we had to change the way real estate can be done, ”said Edgeworth. & # 39; People bought unseen sight. We did walkthroughs with FaceTime and video calls. Even during the pandemic, people are still trying to buy houses. "

Aside from that, Casper & # 39; s real estate market also got a boost from the low interest rates that hovered around 3% for most of 2020. houses. The average time on the market for Casper area homes in 2020 was 14 days less than in 2019. Once the properties became available, Lunstrum said, they moved quickly.

Both brokers said they had worked with several clients who moved to Casper from all over the country: California, New York, New Mexico, Michigan, Maryland, Florida, and even Denver. Local real estate agent Dorie Nelson said she worked with a few buyers who worked in banking and consulting and wanted to take advantage of working from home.

Most of them grew up here, have family in Casper or both, with a few exceptions among retirees. They can provide an answer to an often-cited problem in Wyoming, where young people reap the benefits of the state's education and resources and then leave with their skilled labor. That makes Wyoming the fastest aging state, according to 2019 data from the US Census Bureau: The population aged 65 and older grew 3.8% that year compared to 0.2% total population growth.

Now young professionals with children and specialized labor can help lower that clock.

"We have an awful lot to offer people coming from other states," said Lunstrum. “No state income tax, cost of living is generally lower than in many areas. People say, "I think I'll just go to a place where there's less stress and I can do what I'm doing."

Lunsford works in technology and knows that there aren't many people in his industry around Casper.

"I'm not young, I'm 44 years old, and taking this step is rather risky because Casper's economy is so diverse," said Lunsford. "If I get fired tomorrow, I'll probably have to move to Denver or somewhere else."

He hopes he can help diversify the economy with his industry connections and expertise, and he has taken some steps to connect with the locals in his field, although networking is difficult in the age of social distance. He started working out of the downtown co-working space Basement Shift – the only new client they saw during the pandemic, according to owner Lyle Murtha. It's not like there's no technology in Casper – the local startup Flowstate is an exception to the rule, but even the pipeline tracking software is suitable for the oil industry.

If Casper was somehow overtaken by out-of-state techs and clerks, Wyoming's revenue systems prevent the newcomers from having a major financial impact. That's because the state tax system was designed to rely heavily on the extractive industries. Ashley Harpstreith, executive director of the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, said change must take place in Cheyenne before regular Joes will see any tangible benefits.

"Efforts at economic diversification are incapable of improving Wyoming's revenue stream without tax reform," Harpstreith said. "It is almost impossible."

As Wyoming's tax structure stands now, an influx of new people doesn't really fuel economic growth. Rather, it puts an extra burden on state services as the newcomers can benefit from it without contributing much to their funding.

A 2017 analysis of Wyoming's economic model presented by the taxpayers' association shows that adding jobs increases long-term spending in all industries except oil and gas, where it would increase revenues in the same year. In states with similar assets – Utah, North Dakota, and Kentucky – the analysis showed that adding workers would exceed spending across all industries by 2021.

Those states also have something that Wyoming doesn't: corporate and individual income taxes. So while people like Lunsford enjoy out-of-state salaries with Wyoming prices, the state budget lacks income that can be made by taxing those higher incomes intended for people living in states with higher living costs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8% of Wyoming's workforce works in mining, quarrying, or oil and gas extraction. That's more than double the percentage in North Dakota, which at 3.9% has the second highest percentage of workers in those industries in the country.

According to figures from the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, mining revenues accounted for 53% of Wyoming's budget during fiscal year 2019. That number is down from the boom in early 2010, when it was nearly 70%. But the reduction does not necessarily reflect greater revenue contributions from other sectors; rather, it means less revenue overall as oil and gas prices fall.

In practice, that means cuts in schools and other government agencies that provide public services that pandemic newcomers hope to benefit from. With untapped tax revenues from out-of-state transplants in non-mineral industries, money that could be used to improve a number of things in Wyoming passes untouched under his nose. Rather than providing tax revenue to the state like in California, Lunsford's salary now remains in his family's pockets.

"Energy changes," said Harpstreith. "But the tax structure is the same."

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