The advantages of working for the J.T. Anesthesia Billing Service include homemade lunches, on-site day care and near-total independence.
“You just get up and leave - you can get up and go fishing,” said Erin Nelson, owner and sole employee.
The downside: a windowless basement office, “being in your house all day and not interacting with anyone besides kids once in awhile.”
This is the life of one lone eagle, a modern-day entrepreneur using computer technology to work outside the typical office.
Freed from urban office buildings by faxes, modems and express mail, lone eagles are seen by economic development experts as a new key to bolstering local economies, including those of rural areas that have been stagnant for much of the century.
A recent study at Washington State University’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center estimates 2,600 lone eagles move from out of state each year to set up shop in Washington. The WSU researchers used new motor vehicle registrations for their survey, leaving uncounted thousands of other lone eagles who arrived earlier or converted from other Washington jobs.
“Fifteen years ago this idea of somebody being able to make a living like this, long distance, just wasn’t there,” said Don Dillman, co-author of the study and the WSU center’s deputy director for research and development. “No one even thought about it … Without faxes, e-mail and Federal Express you couldn’t do it.”
Dillman and fellow study authors Priscilla Salant and Lisa Carley compare the arrival of 2,600 workers to the opening of a large manufacturing plant each year.
Better yet, they don’t pollute or demand local tax breaks. More than half earn more than $50,000 a year.
“It’s not just a factory,” said Dillman. “It’s bringing in a high-end factory. It’s almost like bringing in a university.”
“That’s what we’ve been saying all along,” said Philip Burgess of the Center for the New West, a pro-business think tank in Denver. “Now here’s hard evidence that confirms it.”
Burgess coined the term lone eagles in 1992, borrowing from the nickname for transatlantic flying pioneer Charles Lindbergh. Like Lindbergh, asserts Burgess, lone eagles are characterized by qualities like audacity, independence and inventiveness.
Technology has eliminated “the tyranny of distance” that has traditionally kept workers anchored to the goods, services and customers of cities, said Burgess.
One image of the lone eagle cited in the WSU study is of a stockbroker in a resort area like Idaho’s Sun Valley. But lone eagles can also be consultants, manufacturers, representatives, writers, analysts and other “knowledge workers” living in large part by their wits.
Burgess estimates as many as 10 million such people have the skills and telecommunications equipment to become lone eagles.
And they don’t just want to live near ski slopes.
The WSU study found about four-fifths of the lone eagles surveyed moved to metropolitan counties - suggesting their potential for a rural revival is limited. They often decided to move to Washington for outdoor recreation, the natural environment and the absence of a state income tax. About one-fifth of the respondents cited being closer to family and friends.
Erin Nelson moved from Montana to Pullman when his wife came to practice anesthesiology. Even though he has a master’s degree in business administration, he could not find work here.
Then he began handling the Medicare and health insurance billing for his wife and her two business partners, working out of his Pullman home with a computer software program, a fax machine and, more recently, e-mail.
After two years, he is handling the billing for four anesthesia groups. In another year, he hopes to clear $50,000.
“It’s better than a staff job I could get at Washington State University,” he said. “Besides, I think I’m much happier here than working under somebody else.”
Bertie Weddell, a conservation biology consultant, created her home-based business to stay in Pullman, where she moved 23 years ago.
“More or less, we were looking for a way to escape New York City,” said Weddell, who grew up in Manhattan.
Her company is named Draba, after the plant that conservationist Aldo Leopold called “just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.”
The term might describe lone eagles, Weddell said.
Just how big an economic impact lone eagles might ultimately have is still unclear.
The Palouse Economic Development Council is launching a World Wide Web-based advertising effort to attract more lone eagles to the area.
As a draw, the council is citing the area’s low crime rates, recreational opportunities and access to the talents of Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
Among the campaign’s targets are the victims of corporate downsizing - managers and other white-collar workers who are technologically savvy enough to become freelancers.
For now, the WSU study notes, lone eagles account for only 3 percent of the state’s households.
Rural areas in particular are hampered by limited toll-free Internet access. In Whitman County, it is so far available only in Palouse, Colfax, Pullman and LaCrosse.
Moreover, said Tom Kneeshaw, assistant director of the Palouse council, “We don’t have a mountain here. We don’t have a world-class lake here.”
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