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Living a big city life in a small town

Telecommunication gives locals best of both worlds

On paper, Brian Charette’s story sounds just like countless others who have moved to Steamboat Springs. He came for one ski season and decided to stay for the summer. Then he decided to stay for another ski season.

But the similarities in Charette’s story end there. Unlike counterparts his age, Charette is not working in the service industry, piecing together two or three jobs to make ends meet. Unlike his counterparts, he cannot complain about the lack of good-paying jobs or intellectual opportunities.

Instead, Charette is one of a growing number of people who have figured out how to live in a small town while hanging on to their big-city careers.

According to numbers collected by Scott Ford for the upcoming Community Indicators Project, Routt County has 12,196 people in its work force. Of those people, 482 receive their paychecks from somewhere in Colorado other than Routt County, 182 receive paychecks from outside of Colorado, and 92 receive paychecks from international sources. Simply put, that means 6.2 percent of Routt County’s work force does not rely on Routt County for income.

Ford, an economist with the Small Business Development Center, expects the number of telecommuters to keep growing.

Charette lives in Steamboat but telecommutes to Boston. At 30, he was sick of sitting in two hours of traffic each day for his commute to work.

“Frankly, I was burning out,” he said.

When he asked for a one-year leave of absence from his job as a microchip designer, his boss gave him a laptop and an invitation to do as much or as little work over the Internet as he liked while he traveled across the country.

Charette showed up in Steamboat last November, bought a pair of skis and planned to do nothing all winter but hit the slopes.

But a patch of ice in mid-January landed Charette in the hospital with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. While he recovered, Charette opened his laptop and returned to his job full time, this time as a telecommuter.

“Before I knew it, I had a lot of work,” he said. “It’s ironic, because I came to this town not to work for a while.”

Tired to spending so much time at home, he rented an office from the Small Business Incubator project in Bogue Hall at Colorado Mountain College and established himself as an independent contractor, taking work from two former employers.

Charette’s office is a space with bare walls, a desk, a laptop and a chair. For his business to survive in Steamboat, or for any telecommuter to survive in a small town, that town must provide fast Internet connections and a nearby airport with reliable, regular flights. Charette is able to do most of his work in that small office, but he needs to fly to Boston several times a year to test his designs.

Members of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council have been researching the growing number of telecommuters (they use the phrase “location-neutral employees”) in this area to make sure the community is meeting their needs.

Charette did not plan to stay in Steamboat, but he liked the community and decided to stay. His move was made possible with a laptop and very little planning.

In contrast, when Dale Morris

decided to move to Steamboat after more than two decades of living in San Francisco, it took a well-thought-out proposal to his employer, Hewlett Packard. Morris, a computer design engineer, has worked for Hewlett Packard for more than two decades — his entire professional life.

In 2000, when he decided to ask his boss to let him telecommute from Colorado, the practice was not as common as it is today. In the back of his mind, Morris pictured himself stepping away from HP and finding some kind of employment in Steamboat.

But his bosses were receptive, and Morris was able to bring his job and his income with him to a small rural town in Northwest Colorado.

Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard wrote a book, “Life 2.0: How People Across America are Transforming their Lives By Finding the Where of their Happiness,” which examines the choices of migrants such as Morris and Charette who move from the urban coasts to small towns.

“Broadband Internet and search tools such as Google have made it possible to perform sophisticated white-collar work in small towns. The long-predicted ‘death of distance’ era has arrived,” he wrote.

It’s not just the ability to migrate, he wrote, but also the search for a more meaningful life that is driving the migration:

“America has entered what many observers think is a Spiritual Great Awakening touched off by a turbulent global economy, post-Sept. 11, 2001, fears and insecurities, and an aging population (baby boomers in particular) that feels life’s calendar winding down. I believe this search for meaning will beckon Americans out of pricey, status-competitive, time-robbing large population centers and toward more serene and pastoral places.”

Before Morris and his wife, Lynne Garell, who also works at home selling nutritional products for Symmetry, made the move, they wrote a list of things they wanted from their new home.

“We were newlyweds. We wanted to live in a small town, in a community,” Garell said. “We wanted to see parades on Main Street. We wanted to live in a place where there was a more balanced approach to life. People in San Francisco were so busy (with careers) you had to plan two months in advance to have someone over for dinner.”

With the usual social plug-in of the workplace missing, Morris and Garell got involved with groups such as the Yampa Valley Land Trust, the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and Humble Ranch as a way to meet people.

Garell, Morris and Charette still show up for work at 8 a.m. and work until 6 p.m. But working from home, thousands of miles from their clients and employers, allows flexibility to go skiing in the morning or have a long lunch with friends.

“It’s not just about finding somewhere to live,” Garell said. “It’s about finding somehow to live — a way of living. Our culture is set up to tell you how to live. If what you want doesn’t fit into what your told, you have to work harder at it. It’s worth it. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

— To Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com