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The pandemic has brought an unexpected boom to parts of rural America that have been struggling for years. Suddenly, people are fleeing cities for quieter, smaller towns because they can work from basically anywhere. Now rural leaders are trying to figure out how this Zoom boom could bring permanent economic benefits. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The pandemic accelerated a plan Matthew Stoehr had been dreaming of for years - relocating from his crowded Southern California neighborhood to a home he bought in the Idaho mountains.
MATTHEW STOEHR: For me, it was a change of lifestyle, pace of life. I still work just as hard up here as I ever did down there. But, you know, now I can walk outside and sit with the turkeys or watch the deer.
SIEGLER: In jeans and pullover sweater, Stoehr just wrapped a conference call in his yard. His home office is up a winding mountain road past some shuttered sawmills near the old timber town of Orofino, Idaho. He's the chief technology officer for a large real estate company in California.
STOEHR: I went back once. I had an apartment down there, and I moved out. I think it was last September I did that.
SIEGLER: And he's not alone.
STOEHR: Might not be able to hear it on the microphone, but we can hear the heavy machinery logging over there. That means that somebody is clearing trees to build a house.
SIEGLER: Small towns that were built on extractive industries and farming have been steadily losing population, in part due to automation. Pre-pandemic, rural America tried for years to lure new people like Stoehr to relocate businesses or just work remotely because the Internet is finally better. Idaho's Governor Brad Little started thinking big after a recent visit to Orofino promoting broadband expansion.
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BRAD LITTLE: Obviously, one of the things we need to do is have more smart growth in housing in the right areas.
SIEGLER: Speaking at the virtual Idaho Press Club, Little suggested that one fix for the housing crisis in cities is to encourage more Americans to move out to small towns like Orofino.
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LITTLE: As we work on our quest for more broadband and better roads, that means that that growth can be dispersed out into areas, particularly areas that have had a dislocation, that have lost a major employer.
SIEGLER: Just a few years ago, Orofino lost two timber mills. The town's boosters have worked to diversify, attracting new firearms and outdoor sports manufacturers while touting the world-class trout fishing here on the Clearwater River.
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SIEGLER: It's paid off during the pandemic, maybe too much.
CHRIS ST GERMAINE: Oh, gosh, it's been crazy here. We've seen more different kinds of license plates in Clearwater County over the last year than in the last 31 years of living here.
SIEGLER: Chris St. Germaine runs Clearwater County's one-person economic development office. She says there are now bidding wars for homes, and locals are getting priced out.
ST GERMAINE: We're an aging or graying community, and the influx of younger families and younger people is something we should all celebrate.
SIEGLER: But she says in order for the governor's idea to work, towns like this will also have to offer more amenities and services so newcomers stay and spend their money locally. St. Germaine works exhaustively to get federal money to expand broadband. Now, it can still be a battle to get online when you're just outside of town, which is where most people want to move.
ST GERMAINE: People think that they can telecommute from rural places, and they buy property without really investigating what the Internet capacity is at that place. And then they come to me and say, is there a space in town I can rent from? Can I use your connectivity for this very important meeting?
SIEGLER: A recent federal grant expanded fibers several miles up the canyon from Orofino toward Matthew Stoehr's place, actually almost to his driveway. Then the money ran out.
STOEHR: And then there's our phone box that it would connect to. So you're looking at 50 feet.
SIEGLER: So Stoehr still uses satellite Internet, which is spotty. But it's a trade-off, though he's not sure everyone is as committed to staying in rural America as he is.
STOEHR: Everybody is leaving because, oh, my gosh, it was horrible with the pandemic in the cities and everything. And then they're going to move out here, and then they're going to say, well, this isn't - you know, I can't go down the street to Trader Joe's, or I can't - you know, there's no Starbucks in our town.
SIEGLER: Stoehr has considered buying some real estate down in town to help the local economy grow. Boosters see opportunity for a craft brewery or maybe new bistro to keep newcomers here after the pandemic ends.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Orofino, Idaho.
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