I used to freelance for the venerable New York Times and have passed info to editors that we are seeing a rise in the virtual work place and creation of virtual companies/businesses. I can't take credit for this one, but it's good to see the paper of record chiming in.
August 13, 2007
Off to Resorts, and Carrying Their Careers
By JOHN LELAND
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — Time was you could tell the urban refugees in places like this: corporate achievers who quit the rat race to open a bed and breakfast or a candle shoppe.
Jim Moylan represents a new tribe in this bucolic mountain town, named for its loud sulfur spring. Mr. Moylan, 59, is a lawyer who specializes in securities and commodities work. When he moved from Chicago in 2003, he did not downscale his career for the small town, keeping his secretary and associates in Chicago and his clients around the country. He conducts his practice by fax and e-mail, just as he did in Chicago.
In Steamboat Springs, Mr. Moylan dug into local affairs, joining three city committees, the Rotary Club, his church finance council and the editorial board of the daily newspaper. “I just wanted to get involved in the community,“ Mr. Moylan said, sitting in a bookstore/wine bar off the town’s main street.
As technology enables people to live and work wherever they want, increasingly they are clustering in resort playgrounds like Steamboat Springs (pop. 9,315) that have natural amenities, good weather — and, now, lots of people like themselves.
In places like Nantucket, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Teton County, Idaho, the migrants are creating hybrid communities, implanting urban incomes, tastes, careers, ambitions, restaurants, cultural activities and networking opportunities into small towns that until recently could support none of these, and for which there has been little planning and still no consensus.
“You are seeing a transformation of rural communities,” said Jonathan Schechter, executive director of the Charture Institute in Jackson, Wyo., a nonprofit organization that studies small recreational towns.
Into quiet resort spots the migrants have come, laptops on their knees: fund managers from New York, software developers from California, consultants, proofreaders, engineers, inventors. “The same processes that led to the suburbanization of the United States after World War II,” Mr. Schechter said, “are now producing a virtual suburbanization in places like Jackson or Steamboat Springs.”
From 2000 to 2006, population in the 297 counties rated highest in natural amenities by the United States Department of Agriculture grew by 7.1 percent, 10 times the rate for the 1,090 rural counties with below-average amenities, the department reported.
In towns that once emptied after the ski season or the beach season, these “location-neutral” migrants are complicating the traditional dynamic between tourists and locals. Here as elsewhere, average homes have become unaffordable for teachers, firefighters and others — the people who created the good schools and community closeness that newcomers said drew them. The rate of change “is causing a whiplash,” Mr. Schechter said, “because the towns don’t have the political and economic systems in place to deal with them.”
Routt County, which includes Steamboat Springs, is one of the first places to identify these new émigrés as a source of economic growth and, paradoxically, community stability. A 2005 survey found that as many as 1 in 10 year-round households was involved in a location-neutral business. Unlike retirees and second-home buyers, who are also roosting in vacation towns, they send children to the local schools. “Without kids, you don’t have a community,” said Scott Ford, a counselor at the Small Business Resource Center at Colorado Mountain College.
Cloistered in home offices, isolated from the local economy, location-neutrals are often invisible even to one another, except when they appear on local committees.
Many work as hard as their urban counterparts, often juggling commitments in several time zones, but can step from their offices to a hiking trail or mountain stream.
In Steamboat Springs, a pawn shop and loan store amid the expensive restaurants on the main drag illustrates the growing inequality in a region that produces few middle-income jobs. Each day 1,500 workers commute to Routt County from neighboring Moffat County, an hour away. Meanwhile, the airport, once filled with tourists, caters to people in business suits.
“You’ve seen changes in politics,” said Carl Steidtmann, the chief economist for Deloitte Research, who moved from Brooklyn two years ago. “The county tipped Democratic in the last election. You see the tension in the City Council. It went from being pro-business-and-development to more conservationist.” He added, “Twelve years ago, not everyone you met had a Ph.D. or was from New York. There are still a lot of locals here, but that aspect is changing.”
Peter Parsons, 45, who runs a microchip design company in Boulder, Colo., a city of 92,000 about three hours away, moved here five years ago to raise his three children in a small-town environment, keeping the company in Boulder. “It’s a real town,” Mr. Parsons said of the appeal of Steamboat Springs. “If your kids are running around, adults will see them and call you.”
He has kept a Boulder telephone number and does little to remind clients he is not in the city. “I wouldn’t have been able to come here with my family if it meant opening a coffee shop,” he said.
To combat isolation, he volunteered at the school and at church, and briefly moved from his home office into a town-run business incubator “in order to meet people,” he said. Now his office overlooks the ski slopes and is a short walk from a fly-fishing spot; computers vie for desk space with hand-tied flies. He still has to persuade associates that he has not slowed down or retired.
“We have big discussions about what it means to be a local,” Mr. Parsons said of his fellow location-neutrals. “Some people snub anybody who hasn’t been here a long time. And some people think they know everything when they haven’t been here long.”
The Routt County Economic Development Cooperative has embraced the new tribe as an asset, especially to an area with no strong industry other than tourism. Location-neutrals tend to volunteer heavily in civic organizations and local government. County interviews with 61 location-neutral businesses found they held 120 volunteer positions.
But their enthusiasm has not always rubbed long-timers the right way, Mr. Ford said. “If they haven’t bonded with the community,” he said, “they begin with the ‘You people’ speeches: ‘What you people don’t understand is...’ When they start that, it’s almost impossible.” Sometimes disputes spill out in the local newspaper or its blogs, where old-timers and newcomers point fingers.
Thomas Miller-Freutel, a partner in a directory-assistance startup, knows this chasm firsthand. Though he has lived here since 1990, first as owner of the Steamboat Inn, he sometimes struggles to balance his fast-paced work life with the small-town community.
“I have to switch gears from what I was doing in other parts of the world to sit down and be productive as a community member,” he said. “You have to be careful not to say, ‘Look, I deal with people all over the world and this is how it’s done.’ You have to change gears in a small town.”
For Bill and Stephanie Faunce, who run a marketing company for cable operators, small-town life often means starting work at 7 a.m. and quitting at 11 p.m., but with breaks to hike, ski or be with their two young children. Their goal in coming here was not to slow down but to eliminate urban distractions and pressures.
“There are no stressors here,” said Mr. Faunce, 43. “In L.A., it took 90 minutes to get to the office, so we had a Mercedes and a Land Rover. Now we drive a Suburban. In three years we’ve put 15,000 miles on it.”