Takeaways from the first two years of the Wilds Are Working: A Remote Lifestyle Experience

Takeaways from the first two years of the Wilds Are Working: A Remote Lifestyle Experience

Twenty people have now had the chance to test out living in the rural Pennsylvania Wilds region and tens of thousands of dollars have been invested into the host communities, thanks to a program known as the Wilds Are Working: A Remote Lifestyle Experience.

A window wrap installed in a vacant storefront window in Kane as part of the Picture Yourself Here portion of the Wilds Are Working program.

Designed to help the region’s communities position themselves as destinations for the modern workforce, the program encompasses several components. In addition to marketing the communities and creating a way for the selected remote workers to live in the region rent free for a month, the program is helping the communities look at their systems for welcoming new residents, identifying the amenities that they find important, and developing new marketing tools for highlighting the benefits of living within walking distance of some of the most spectacular outdoor recreation opportunities in the Commonwealth. In fact, a window wrap project that takes place in conjunction with the program literally fills downtown storefront windows with images of nearby outdoor recreation assets as part of a “Picture Yourself Here” campaign.

“This is not a paid relocation program, but rather an opportunity for participating communities and remote workers to evaluate their goals and needs, and ultimately it helps the communities identify what can help them to attract new residents long term,” explained Abbi Peters, COO of the nonprofit PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, which implements the program with local community lead organizations thanks to a partnership with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA and funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission. “The added plus is that some of the participants may choose to relocate as well!”

The program, which launched in 2022, seeks to help address some of the long-standing trends in the rural region – including decades of population decline, industry contraction, outmigration of young people, and workforce development challenges – by capitalizing on the possibilities associated with remote workers being able to live anywhere with an internet connection and basic lifestyle amenities. It also taps into the growing demand for outdoor recreation opportunities and better work-life balance.

“PA Wilds Center has developed tools that leverage the region’s place-based brand, and the communities receive support and investments throughout the program’s implementation so that they can best position themselves as a location for these prospective residents. Listening to the remote workers’ feedback and developing additional amenities based on their experiences will position the communities well for the future, while creating additional opportunities to grow their populations, tax bases and local skill sets as new residents engage with community affairs,” Peters noted.

Survey findings from the first two years of Wilds Are Working (WAW) participants, as well as community members involved in the program, show that this unique experience is one that is already making an impact and changing minds about rural living.

Read below for the survey findings, and watch the video of some of the participants sharing their experiences.


Participant survey results

The Wilds Are Working welcome part at Rich Valley Wines kicked off the start of the remote workers’ experience in Emporium in 2023.

A standardized survey was used to evaluate the remote workers’ overall satisfaction with the experience and specific aspects of it, including the stipend gift card, the coworking options, and more. The participants were also asked if they would consider moving to the host community or another PA Wilds community.   For some questions, the survey used a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best response. Other questions used a scale to gauge satisfaction overall, ranging from very satisfied to very unsatisfied. 

Ten of the 11 participants who stayed in Bellefonte and Kane in 2022 and all nine participants who stayed in Emporium and Warren in 2023 responded to the survey.

The results were overwhelmingly positive on all marks, with more than 80% of participants over both years saying they gave the overall experience a 5 out of 5 and about 90% of participants saying they may consider relocating in the future. In addition, all participants indicated they were satisfied or very satisfied with lodging, welcoming events and guide materials, and the application process. All of the participants indicated that they now are more familiar with the PA Wilds region than they were previously.

Two areas that the participants felt had room for improvement include the digital gift card system that was used to distribute stipends and coworking facilities. 

The Shop The PA Wilds digital gift card through Yiftee is a digital gift card and is accessed through the user’s phone.

The Shop the PA Wilds Gift Cards are distributed digitally, and they ensure that stipends are spent with small businesses in the region. In both years, roughly 30% of survey respondents gave the system a 5 out of 5. Of the 2022 participants, 40% gave it a 4 out of 5, whereas 50% of the 2023 participants gave it a 4 out of 5.

During program implementation, it became clear that additional training for merchants accepting the cards would be needed to make the system flow more smoothly for participants. Staff turnover and other factors played into some merchant locations not realizing that they accepted the cards or knowing how to process the digital gift cards, for example. 

In both years, a majority of survey respondents said they were at least somewhat satisfied with their coworking spaces. However, respondents in communities without designated coworking spaces indicated that they were either unsatisfied or they felt the question was not applicable to them. 

Jonathan Kohl and his wife, Holly, stayed in Bellefonte during WAW 2022 and are shown at Hyner View State Park. Before arriving for his WAW experience, Jonathan made a spreadsheet of places he wanted to go within the PA Wilds and managed to take a day trip to most of them during his stay!

“This demonstrated to program managers and the host communities how important coworking facilities are to remote workers,” said Peters. “Not every community in the region has designated a de facto space for workers to come together to work. Sometimes that happens in libraries or coffee shops, but that is not the specific purpose of those establishments. This feedback demonstrated a true need for those kinds of facilities if the communities want to continue to grow their local tax base that is comprised of remote workers.”

When asked if they would consider moving to their host community in the future, a majority of respondents indicated it may be a possibility in the future, with one out of ten saying it wasn’t a fit for them both years. In 2022, 30% answered “Definitely,” 50% said “Maybe in a few years,” 10% said they were “Kind of thinking about it,” and 10% said they were not considering it. In 2023, 44.4% said “Definitely,” 33.3% said “Maybe in a few years,” 11.1% said “Kind of thinking about it,” and 11.1% said no. This survey result bore out accurately, as one of the participating families in 2023 did end up moving to Emporium, their host community.

Participants were also asked if they were considering moving to another part of the PA Wilds region that is not their host community, and the responses mirrored those provided when asked if they would consider moving to their host community.

Several of the remote workers expressed gratitude for the opportunity to test out living in rural Pennsylvania. Some said that looking back, they wished they had more time off of work to explore the region even further and several indicated they would have liked to have more group activities with the other participants as well as more volunteer opportunities.


How participant stipends were used

Participants are given stipends to spend while in the region via Shop the PA Wilds Digital Gift Cards. Powered by software known as Yiftee, these gift cards are distributed via email and can only be used at participating businesses, or merchants. This ensured that the funds were spent with small businesses throughout the region. To be eligible, these businesses had to be members of the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania, which is free and helps the businesses get promoted as part of the regional experience. 

The first year of the program entailed living stipends of $1,500 per participant, but most participants did not expend all of the funding, so the amount was lowered to $1,200 per participant for the second year. 

In addition to ensuring the funding is spent locally, the Yiftee software enables program managers to see where the funds are being used, which can help provide additional meaningful feedback to the participating communities about the types of amenities that were popular and other amenities that may still need to be developed. 

For example, 44.4% of the stipends for the 2022 Bellefonte cohort were spent on food and beverage items, while 39.1% was spent on retail, 11.8% was spent on outfitter experiences, and 4.7% was spent on other services. Meanwhile, for the Kane cohort that same year, 62% of the stipends were spent on food and beverage, 30.8% was spent on retail, 1.4% was spent on outfitter experiences, and 5.6% was spent on other services. In comparison, the 2023 stipend spend showed no expenditures on general services. The Emporium cohort spent 46.7% of stipends on food and beverage, 39.1% on retail purchases, and 14.1% on outfitter experiences, and the Warren cohort spent 71.3% on food and beverage, 18.6% on retail, and 10.1 on outfitter experiences.


Early program outcomes

Jared, Cici and daughter Esther stand in front of their new home in Emporium. They moved to the area shortly after their experience in the Wilds Are Working program in 2023.

One of the families who participated in the 2023 Wilds Are Working program in Emporium, Cameron County, ended up buying a home in their host town. The Brackbills (Jared and Cici, with their daughter Esther) bought a home in the heart of the PA Wilds, in downtown Emporium. They are currently in the process of moving from their former home in Carlisle, and the family plans to be permanently in Emporium by Christmas.

The Brackbills said they felt connected and welcomed into the Emporium community almost immediately. In fact, their daughter Essy was invited to a birthday party within the first few days. 

“I love it! I really like the community. Everyone knows everyone,” Essy said. “Back where we’re from, we lived on a main road and we couldn’t walk anywhere. Here it’s different, and everyone says hi to you. At the welcome dinner, I ran into Lauren. She introduced me to her group of friends at the Saturday music festival, and they invited me to the party for the next day.”

The Brackbills packed a lot of travel into their short stay in Emporium, with some of their favorite places being Kinzua Bridge State Park, Cook Forest State Park, and the Elk Country Visitors Center in Benezette.  “It’s starting to click for us that we don’t have to try to do everything in one month… we live here now!” joked Jared. 

Whereas Cici and Essy are not originally from small towns, Jared grew up in the rural area of Licking Township, Juniata County. “It feels like home. For me, it was a relief that the small community was still around,” he said.

While the Brackbills’ relocation to the region is one of the most visible successes seen from the program, it is just one of many reverberating throughout the participating communities.

Residents benefit just as much as the participants of the Wilds Are Working program. The feedback from the program allowed the communities to gain valuable insights on how to better support remote workers who are already residents, build stronger connections within the community, and enhance life for the families who have already rooted themselves in the PA Wilds. 

PA Wilds Center staff members LaKeshia Knarr and Britt Madera met inside one of the conference rooms in the new, larger Springboard location in Bellefonte.

One excellent example is Springboard in Bellefonte, a coworking facility that relocated to a larger space to offer more privacy, based on feedback from the remote workers. Another example is how Kane now uses the Welcome Guide developed as part of the Wilds Are Working program for their new residents, something they learned was appreciated by the remote workers. In addition, Warren intends to install more window wraps because of the positive feedback they’ve received from their residents about how the images of the natural assets around the community make downtown feel more vibrant, inviting and inspiring. And Emporium is looking to create its own dedicated coworking facility for remote workers and community members to leverage.

“It’s been super rewarding to be able to implement a program of this nature in the region, as it helps hyper local businesses while also creating important feedback mechanisms for the community to consider as it looks to grow and attract new residents,” said Peters. “We’re excited to see how the program continues to grow, evolve and impact the region’s communities.”

Funding is in place to offer the program in two new communities in 2024. Prospective host communities in the region are selected through a competitive application process, and communities must apply by December 15, 2023, at www.PAWildsCenter.org/wilds-are-working for consideration. The selected two communities will be announced in early 2024, with the application for remote workers expected to open by March at www.WildsAreWorking.com. The communities will then host the selected participants in July and August. 



The Pennsylvania Wilds is a 13-county region that includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren, and northern Centre. The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that inspires the communities of the Pennsylvania Wilds. The PA Wilds Center promotes the region and its 2+ million acres of public lands as a premier outdoor recreation destination as a way to diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, attract investment, retain population and improve quality of life. The PA Wilds Center’s core programs seek to help businesses leverage the PA Wilds brand and connect with new market opportunities, including: the Wilds Cooperative of PA, a network of more than 575 place-based businesses and organizations, and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, a retail outlet primarily featuring products sourced from the WCO. For more information on the PA Wilds Center, visit www.PAWildsCenter.org. To learn more about the WCO, visit www.WildsCoPA.org. Explore the PA Wilds at www.PAWilds.com. Find regionally made products at www.ShopThePAWilds.com


Media Contact

Britt Madera | Communications Manager

PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc.

[email protected] | 570-948-1051

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