The phrase "Sumter is in the middle of everything" might take on a new meaning as remote and hybrid work formats become increasingly popular with employers.
Given ever-increasing technology and escalated by COVID-19, people are not working in the same way as before, and smaller cities and towns could see the benefits, according to a regional economist and a local Realtor who spoke this week on changing work cultures.
Since the 1990s, metropolitan areas have become magnets for new residents because of strong job creation from bigger companies and the tradition that "people live where they live because of their job," according to Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Regional Economist Laura Ullrich.
She is one who follows that approach - Ullrich's position is based in Charlotte, and she lives in neighboring Rock Hill.
In recent decades, smaller areas like Sumter - even though they have a lower cost of living - have not grown in population nearly as much, and there has been somewhat of an exodus to those larger cities.
But as more and more employers move to hybrid schedules for their workers, there could be some reversal on that front, Ullrich said. In a hybrid work format, employees go to work one or two days per week and work from home the remainder of the time.
Specifically, Sumter could benefit from those schedules because of its location - about an hour east of Columbia and 90 minutes or so from Charleston - she added.
"In that way, I think the Sumter area might really benefit because of your geography," Ullrich said. "You are close enough to two relatively large metros where people might decide to move to Sumter to get more land, cheaper housing, and they only have to drive in to work two days a week."
She added people moving from big cities to more rural areas because of hybrid schedule options is already happening. How much it continues to happen depends in part on how many employers go the hybrid or fully remote work route.
BUT, THERE ARE A FEW MUSTS IN ANY DECISION.
All that being said, there are certain amenities that people want and need when deciding to move to a smaller area, Ullrich said.
First and foremost is broadband internet access.
To work comfortably from home, a person must have a good connection. That's a must, she said.
Another can be access to parks and recreational activities.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be on the lake," Ullrich said, "but people like to get out and do things, and I think the move to more rural places is a move to get to more space."
Good public schools is another important feature.
And more could make the list, such as sewer access, she added.
MORE ON THE RURAL/URBAN PICTURE
It is important for rural areas to consider these initiatives, given the 2020 U.S. Census only confirmed rapid growth in metropolitan areas, in part at the cost of more rural areas, Ullrich said. In South Carolina, 24 of 46 counties (52%) - including Sumter, Clarendon and Lee - lost population in the decennial census. In North Carolina, 51 of 100 counties (51%) showed population declines.
West Virginia lost 60,000 residents in the 2020 Census compared to 2010 and had the largest population loss percentage (3.2%) of any state in the U.S.
This spring, it launched a large-scale program to attract fully remote workers to move to the state called "Ascend West Virginia."
Through an application process, workers who are accepted into the program receive a one-time incentive package valued at more than $20,000, including $12,000 in direct cash payments and a year's worth of free outdoor recreational opportunities.
AND, IN SUMTER
Mary Braaten of Advantage Realty Group said she thinks Sumter could benefit from a similar initiative.
Braaten has 17 years of experience in the local real estate market, and she said she knows many people who now prefer to work full time from home after doing so much remote work in the pandemic.
Locally, we already benefit on housing with low price points and low relative property taxes, she said.
And with older couples and retirees, Sumter already has another leg up on some other rural areas.
She shared about some friends who lived here many years ago. They are retired military and moved to a big house on three acres in Wyoming, Braaten said.
However, in recent years, the couple has developed some medical issues and needs good, quality health care. They now have to drive two hours to the closest facility, she said.
"With family here in South Carolina on the coast," Braaten said, "the couple just said, 'You know what? We're going to come back because you have the base hospital, the VA. You have got other good hospitals in the area.' So, they are coming back. It's interesting. They said, 'No, there is just more stuff here. We need the facilities that this area offers.'"
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