Pay to Play: A new West Virginia program offers enticing reasons to relocate

Meet some of the folks who’ve gone for it
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Quintina Mengyan kayaks at Hazel Ruby McQuain Park.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

West Virginia is doling out $12,000 and free outdoor adventures to remote workers willing to move there for two years. Meet some of the folks who’ve gone for it. 

The deal is simple: Live in West Virginia for two years, earn an extra $12,000. Bring your remote job, get free coworking space, and take advantage of complimentary outdoor recreation (including gear rentals). Ski in Snowshoe, raft the New River Gorge, zip-line over Coopers Rock State Forest. It’s all covered by a new program known as Ascend West Virginia. The catch? It’s a very popular offer. Some 15,000 people have already applied for 110 spots across three regions. Armed with geographic flexibility and the idea that the program is simply the next incarnation of travel, many remote workers are eager to plant their flag, albeit briefly, in a state whose population has been quietly exiting the last half a century. But when a vacation lasts not two weeks, but two years, does the excitement wear thin? 

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Did I do the wrong thing?” It’s what Snehan Sharma asked himself on a gray, chilly day in November 2021. He had driven his SUV 600 miles from Atlanta, where he was raised, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where he had never stepped foot. He had no friends or family in this hilly town in the north-central part of the state, best known as the home of West Virginia University (WVU). It had been just a few weeks since he’d heard from Ascend that he was accepted into the program—weeks during which he’d canceled a planned move from Atlanta to Boston, hopped on Zoom to inform the software company where he worked of his decision (his boss didn’t care), and broke the news to his parents (his mom was all for it; his dad was a harder sell).

He hadn’t worried about the moving part. At 26, he’d spent as many years of his career working remotely as he had in an office; he’d bounced from Washington, D.C., to Salt Lake City to Atlanta since the pandemic began. “I’d gotten comfortable being nomadic in my life,” he says.

Snehan Sharma mountain bikes at White Park

Photo by Laura Petrilla

But this wouldn’t be a quick stopover. To get the full $12,000, he had to give it two years. (Otherwise, he’d only get the monthly installments he received prior to leaving the state.) As he lugged his belongings up three flights of stairs to the attic apartment of an old Victorian house, his heavy exhalations seemed to taunt him. Maybe he should have asked his dad to help him move. Maybe he should have listened to his dad, period.

But the person to whom he had listened was John Chambers, a fellow Duke alum and former CEO of Cisco. In a widely shared speech, Chambers had spoken passionately about his goal of transforming his home state of West Virginia into a start-up mecca. It made Sharma pay attention when he saw a headline about Ascend on Google News. He’d grown even more interested when he read that Brad Smith, the former CEO of Intuit who also hails from West Virginia, and his wife, Alys, founded Ascend with the goal of luring tech-savvy workers. “As someone who wants to advance his career in tech, I was interested to see what could come of this,” Sharma says.

He was also ready to shift from big cities like D.C. and Atlanta to a college town similar to Durham. “Small communities where people know each other are what feel most comfortable to me,” he says. Plus, he was intrigued by the prospect of grabbing a mountain bike and hitting the trails during his lunch break. (According to Ascend’s website, Morgantown offers access to 200 mountain-biking trails, 1,400 climbing routes, and 100 paddling runs.) If nothing else, it would be an adventure, he reminded himself as he trudged up the stairs. A new place to explore.

But on that dreary fall day, he couldn’t summon the adrenaline that had propelled him to pick up everything and move to Morgantown. “My initial excitement,” he says, “was replaced by early regret.” 

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Brad Smith believes in his product. He is selling West Virginia, and he has no problem with people trying before they buy. “We want to transform the perception and the reality of West Virginia,” says Smith, who funded Ascend with a $25 million grant. “We want people to have the opportunity to live, work, and play in an amazing environment where they can be fully employed by their company, then have the ability to go outside and take advantage of some of the greatest outdoor resources in the United States.”

Views from the overlooks at Cooper’s Rock are expansive

Photo by Laura Petrilla

Sitting behind his desk at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he is now president, he admits that his goal of rebranding West Virginia as the next Silicon Valley won’t be a cakewalk. It certainly isn’t helped by the state’s longstanding reputation as a coal-obsessed cultural backwater. “Part of that is our ownership,” he says. “We have not controlled our own narrative. We’ve allowed others to write our narrative for us.”

He wants people to see the state’s low cost of living (including the second-cheapest rents in the country) not as a sign of decline but as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. And he’s convinced that people who are drawn to West Virginia will also be drawn to each other. It was important to him that Ascend offer year-round social opportunities for participants, from happy hours at its downtown coworking space to ropes-course excursions to full- moon paddling trips.

After rolling out the program in 2021 with the announcement that Morgantown was the pilot city, Ascend received 7,500 applications for 50 initial spots (more will be added on a rolling basis). Next came the more rural Greenbrier Valley in southern West Virginia; 3,600 applicants competed for 30 openings. “I’m a dreamer, and even I was surprised [by the number of applicants],” Smith says. “West Virginians were blown away. I think we all grew two inches taller.” The program’s third and final location, the historic Eastern Panhandle region, will close its application window soon. The goal is to bring in a total of 1,000 “Ascenders” by 2026.

An aerial view of Coopers Rock features early fall color in the surrounding forest.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

Ascend isn’t the only remote-worker program to launch during the pandemic. At least eight others have popped up around the country, from one in northwest Arkansas offering $10,000 and a free mountain bike to southwest Michigan’s, which awards $15,000 toward a new home and complimentary transportation to and from the airport for a year. Even Airbnb has jumped into the game, doling out coupons to these programs so that potential and current participants can begin their journeys in a rental vacation home before signing a lease. (Airbnb’s own survey recently showed that 47 percent of Americans are interested in trying out a new city before committing to buy there.)

Smith says he isn’t worried about what other programs are doing to attract applicants. “We’ve got a little help from above,” he says with a smile. “We’re blessed with rock-climbing trails, snow skiing, whitewater rapids, and the nation’s newest national park. No matter how hard another remote program may try to compete, these are things they can’t re-create.” 

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Everyone who applies to Ascend has their reasons. Matt Worden’s was deeply personal: He wanted to introduce his family to the state he’d left at 18. Having grown up in Charleston, West Virginia (150 miles southwest of Morgantown), he remembers a childhood spent traipsing through the woods, exploring the Appalachians by horseback, and even dabbling in bouldering. Now 39, Worden wanted his children—ages ten, four, and one—to experience the same. But he and his wife, Marie, both had project- management jobs in Tallahassee, Florida. The idea of switching companies and moving five states away with three kids, three cats, and two dogs seemed impossible.

Benjamin Worden gets into the swing of things at Coopers Rock.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

Then came the pandemic. Matt and Marie suddenly found themselves working from home while their kids went to school online. Matt’s dreams of giving West Virginia a try seemed less fanciful. When he showed Marie a post about Ascend’s program on Facebook, she applied within the hour. “In Florida, it’s so hot I never wanted to go outside,” says Marie, 32. “We were intrigued by the community Ascend said they would provide,” says Matt. “With a large family, it’s hard to make friends when you go somewhere new. Ascend was offering a social network out of the box.”

Indeed, not long after the Wordens were accepted into the program and arrived in Morgantown in March 2022, they traveled to Snowshoe on an Ascend-sponsored ski weekend, where they were relieved to meet others in a similar stage of life. They’ve since hosted barbecues for fellow Ascenders and their families at their new home. Surrounded by new friends in their three-acre backyard, they’ve cooked ribs and built bonfires while their eldest daughter, Amelia, traipsed through the woods with the other children—exactly as Matt had. 

The Worden family (Matt, Benjamin, Amelia, Marie, and Charlotte) hike and play at Coopers Rock.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

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It was always a possibility. Quintina Mengyan knew she might be called back into the office. When the 30-year-old moved from Chicago to Morgantown in August 2021, she had the blessing of her boss at Vivid Seats, a ticket-resale company for which Mengyan was director of customer experience. Live sports and entertainment—her company’s bread and butter—were limping along. Her office was a ghost town.

But by the spring of 2022, they needed her to return. And she wasn’t ready. “People talk about West Virginia being a hidden gem, and I truly feel that way,” says Mengyan, whose childhood was spent moving from state to state (though never West Virginia). She had been looking forward to a summer of hiking with her boyfriend and their German shepherd around Coopers Rock State Forest. She wanted another fall to kayak on Cheat Lake while the leaves on the surrounding hills turned red and gold. She had hoped to try snow tubing in Blackwater Falls this winter.

So she quit her job of nearly eight years. “Without another one lined up!” she says, laughing. “It was very scary. I took a leap of faith.” And, like the adventurers who famously rappel off West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge, she landed on her feet. Mengyan, who holds two MBAs, is now director of operations at Vantage Ventures, an entrepreneurial incubator that’s part of WVU’s college of business. “It feels like the job was created specifically for me,” she says.

Quintina Mengyan putting complimentary gear rentals to good use

Photo by Laura Petrilla

Instead of working from the rented townhome she shares with her boyfriend, she now goes into an office on University Avenue. After grabbing a coffee from the kitchen and pulling up a chair at a long wooden table, she participates in a brainstorming session between Vantage Ventures and one of its best-known community collaborators: Ascend West Virginia. “It’s clearly something I’m interested in,” she says.

Right now, she’s working with Ascend on a planned multi-level community center close to Morgantown’s paved Caperton Trail. On the ground floor, locals and Ascenders alike will be able to rent bikes they can take on the trail; they can also sign up for classes on subjects like how to fix a flat. One floor up, a coworking space will offer coffee, cubicles, and conversation. “Being a part of this is a very full-circle moment for me,” Mengyan says. “Two years ago, I never could have envisioned it. But now it all feels right. This is my home.” 

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This summer, Snehan Sharma turned a corner. On a Friday in July, he and four friends who were visiting from around the country went indoor rock climbing at Gritstone Climbing + Fitness. The facility was five minutes from his home, and everyone was impressed with its wealth of options and absence of crowds. The next day, they rented mountain bikes (Sharma’s was complimentary, of course) and traversed the trails at Coopers Rock. On the third day, they kayaked on Cheat Lake. “Because of Morgantown’s size, it was all very accessible, and none of it took extensive planning,” Sharma says.

Family hiking spots are plentiful in West Virginia

Photo courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

In 2021, when Sharma had told these same friends about his move to West Virginia, they had been skeptical. “To the unfamiliar, it has a reputation that precedes it in a negative way,” Sharma says. But after their time in Morgantown, his friends started to get it. “It kind of rehabbed their image of what this place is.”

Sharma, who describes himself as reserved (“new groups of people can be nerve-racking”), has managed to make local friends and even begun networking with Morgantown’s tech community. He’s gotten into cooking, scouring social-media posts to find local produce stands where he can buy the freshest ingredients. He’s even gotten used to navigating Mor- gantown’s precariously steep and narrow roads. “The streets are a different beast here,” he says.

He can’t say for sure if he’ll stay in West Virginia after the two years are up. Life happens; he might go to graduate school. But recently, something made him realize he no longer has any regrets about giving the state a try. He was driving back from a weekend in Chicago, where he’d been visiting friends. Instead of experiencing a familiar twinge of sadness, he realized he was content. Scratch that: “Very happy, actually.”

“It’s something I didn’t expect to happen so soon,” he says. “I’m living alone; there aren’t people in Morgantown waiting for me.” But as he entered the state, he saw the familiar highway sign: Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful. “And I got a bit of joy,” he says. 

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MORGANTOWN MUSTS

Looking to make your own ascent into the wilds of West Virginia? Here’s what not to miss in the Morgantown area.

ADVENTURES

Caperton Trail—Six-mile paved rail trail following Monongahela River through Morgantown, passing local businesses like Brownie House and Country Roads Quilts.

Coopers Rock—Located just outside Morgantown, with 50 miles of trails and a scenic overlook featuring one of the most Instagrammable views in the state.

Gritstone Climbing + Fitness
Massive indoor climbing facility with more than 100 rope routes for all levels, plus yoga and fit- ness classes.

Hazel Ruby McQuain Park—Greenspace and amphitheater situated on the river and accessed by the Caper- ton Trail; concertgoers often arrive by kayak or mountain bike.

Core Arboretum—Three miles of intown trails, a botanical garden, and an old-growth forest managed by West Virginia University.

Trail at Core Arboretum

Photo courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

White Park—Expansive park with five miles of wooded trails and a seasonal indoor ice- skating rink open to the public on weekends.

Cheat Lake—Large, man-made lake outside Morgantown with waterfront restaurants, beaches, and a nearly five-mile paved trail.

EATS

Terra Cafe—Health-conscious eatery for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with vegetarian options and an award-winning bakery.

Black Bear Burritos—Large counter-service restaurant with unusual flavors (kiwi salsa, anyone?) and local brews from Chestnut Brew Works.

Mountain State Brewing Co.— Microbrews and wood-fired pizzas with outdoor seating on Morgantown’s rail trail.

Table 9—Elevated, chef-driven gastropub on the river with a daily-changing menu, plus craft cocktails.

SHOPS

Appalachian Gallery—Two floors stocked with stained glass, paintings, soaps, and historic maps— all locally made.

Hoot and Howl—Charming downtown mercantile with locally made stationery, jewelry, and home decor, plus vintage and antique finds.

Hoot and Howl gift shop

Photo courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

STAYS

Hotel Morgan—Morgantown’s prettiest boutique hotel, situated in the heart of downtown, offering 81 rooms as well as Anvil + Ax, a glam bar with a Roaring Twenties vibe.

Hotel Morgan’s ballroom

Photo courtesy of Visit Mountaineer Country CVB

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This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Southbound.

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