Following Lead of World Bank Employee, Iron County Seeks to Attract Remote Workers

Jan 21, 2021

Gary Theisen, who telecommuted to his job with the World Bank from his Mercer home.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The World Bank has offices in more than 130 places and staff from more than 170 countries.

Starting more than a decade ago, one of those staff members worked from a wood-paneled office overlooking a small lake outside Mercer.

He was among the first telecommuters in Iron County, Wisconsin, a part of the first wave of work-at-home employees whose number has now spiked in the area.

Gary Theisen had lived for years in Washington, DC, working at the headquarters of the World Bank and traveling internationally.

Clear Lake.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

In the mid-2000s, he wanted to move back to Wisconsin, eventually to a home on Clear Lake near Mercer. Somewhat surprisingly, that home had an internet connection.

“It was dial-up. It was very slow and frustrating,” he said. “But at least I could get some access.”

Theisen had a pitch to the World Bank. Could he telecommute from Wisconsin and keep his job?

The World Bank cautiously said yes. At the time, there were just nine employees working remotely for the agency, which employed 9,000 people. The organization works on international development and poverty issues, with projects often in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In his woodsy Mercer home office, Theisen was plugged in, among the first serious wave of telecommuters in Iron County.

“For me, it worked, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t work for other people who met certain conditions,” he said.

Theisen is retired now, although he’s continued to work on projects like consulting for the Dutch government from his Northwoods home.

Gary Theisen's home office overlooking Clear Lake.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Retirement is still a ways off for Anna Rivera, who spoke from her own Mercer-area house.

“I’m always thankful when I look outside and all I see are trees,” Rivera said. “I’m just thankful that I can do this.”

Rivera owns a company that offers railroad safety classes to contractors, running it from her Mercer home.

“There are a lot of rules that are all in place because somebody lost their life,” she said. “The rules are very strict, and it’s because somebody lost their life.”

She used to do a lot of travel, but the pandemic has moved most classes to Zoom, which she has come to prefer.

As a side job, Rivera invented, patented, and started selling a pillowcase for travel pillows called Lucky Case. None of what she does would be possible without a good internet connection, which she has. A reliable connection is “mandatory,” she says.

Soon enough, she thinks, more people will get the message that they don’t have to choose between living in the rural Northwoods and working remotely.

“I just think that a lot of people probably don’t realize that they can move up north and work out of their house,” Rivera said.

A recent railroad-safety class hosted by Anna Rivera's company.

In Kelly Klein’s eyes, the faster that word gets out, the better.

“I started arguing this remote work thing can really work for our area,” he said. “I realized that these are really pretty good jobs. In economic development, we always talk about creating jobs, right?”

Klein is in charge of the Iron County Development Zone.

Kelly Klein of the Iron County Development Zone.
Credit Derek Montgomery / Milwaukee Magazine

Many economic developers like him used to see luring in industry as the future, but that’s changing.

Now, attracting remote workers seems like a much more promising plan.

“We’ve found that chasing smokestacks really didn’t work, right? You can spend a lot of time and a lot of money going out and trying to attract a business to move into your area. The success rate is very, very small,” he said.

Hundreds of property-owners in Iron County have said they’d start a business in the county or move one there if they had adequate broadband.

The county now has 12 fixed wireless towers, some so popular that they’re maxed out on customers. Efforts to improve coverage are in the works.

Gary Theisen is now an avid photographer.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Gary Theisen spends a lot of his time these days on photography, not World Bank issues.

He retired a dozen years ago as one of the only telecommuters at the organization.

But the World Bank has pursued a trend Iron County hopes to follow.

About 2,000 of the agency’s staff now work remotely.