BEMIDJI, Minn. -- After a near-fatal plane crash, every day is Thanksgiving for Tony and Sharon Carr. But this year they’re also thankful for a new town, a soon-to-be new home and a relocation program that helped make it all happen.
“We’re always thankful,” said Sharon Carr, who grew up in Bemidji. “It’s definitely fun being back home. There’s no place like Bemidji.”
The Carrs are one of nearly two dozen families that have taken advantage of Greater Bemidji’s 218 Relocate program, which offers incentives to those who move to Bemidji, Minnesota, and work remotely. Tony is a geospatial technician for Boeing, creating flight charts for commercial airline pilots. They moved from Denver with their two young daughters in June, and are living with Sharon’s parents until Dec. 14 when they close on their new home.
When Tony learned about 218 Relocate, he did a double-take.
“That was exactly what I was looking for,” Tony said. “My company was not going to reimburse, because it was an optional move. I saw a commercial for it on TV and said, ‘Was this commercial made for me? Was it targeted toward Tony Carr?’ Because this seems like a perfect fit when you’re looking at helping people who are able to telecommute move to the Bemidji area. There also was the draw of the fiber-optic network here.”
A love of flying
Tony grew up in Houston and became interested in aviation at a young age.
“Going to the airport was always kind of a highlight,” he said. “I really enjoyed just being on the plane and being able to see everything from above. The bug kind of caught me early that I wanted to do something in aviation.”
He attended Oklahoma State University and earned an aviation science degree while also working as a flight instructor. After graduating in 2008, he was a flight operations intern for Mesaba Airlines, which flew into Bemidji. That’s when he met Sharon.
“He was up here visiting,” she recalled. “He got a jump seat pass on a flight to Bemidji. For whatever reason, he wanted to see more of Minnesota.”
Sharon was at McDonald’s on a break from work. Tony just happened to be at the same place.
“He bumped into me and ended up spilling a drink on me,” she said with a grin. Then he asked for her phone number. She said no. Then he asked for her email address.
“He said, ‘Let me just email you. So if you don’t like me, then you don’t have to respond.’ I soon realized he’s such a good writer. So it started off as emails and kind of went from there.”
After Tony left Mesaba that summer, he returned to Oklahoma State to do more flight instruction. For the next two years, he and Sharon had a long-distance relationship, with visits back and forth from Bemidji to Oklahoma.
Moving east, surviving a crash
Tony got his first full-time job as a pilot in 2011, delivering cargo for AirNet Systems, a subsidiary of FedEx. He was based in Richmond, Virginia, and made overnight flights up and down the East Coast. Sharon joined him in Virginia, and the couple set a wedding date for December 2011.
“It was interesting flying because it was all at night,” Tony said. “But it started to take a toll on me with the interesting hours and just missing out on things because of the weird schedule. I really liked flying but it was getting a little old. Sharon and I had not started a family yet, but we were looking in that direction, so it was going to be a challenge for us if I stayed in this job.”
On April 11 of that year, everything changed.
Tony’s flight that evening was headed to Charlotte, North Carolina. As he was taking off from Richmond International Airport, one of his engines quit working after takeoff. The plane crashed back down over the runway.
“I was knocked unconscious and because of the impact obviously the plane was up in flames,” he said. He suffered burns over 60% of his body.
“Luckily the airport fire and rescue was located in the middle of the airport and they were able to get to me pretty quickly,” Tony said. He was taken to nearby Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital, which just happened to have an official burn unit.
“After that initial engine failure happened, a lot of things were really lining up favorably,” he said. “I was kept in Richmond unconscious for a couple of months in a medically induced coma, and stayed in the hospital for another couple of months before I was able to go home.”
For the next three years, Tony endured nearly 70 surgeries and all kinds of physical and occupational therapy.
“Most of my time in Richmond, unfortunately, wasn’t spent working,” he said. “First it was about trying to keep my body alive, then giving me the functional ability to live, not just to survive but actually to be somebody who could live a life.”
Sharon’s full-time job during that time was taking care of Tony and getting him to and from appointments and surgeries. They changed their wedding plans and decided to get married on Sept. 10 in Virginia.
“It was on 9-10-11, so that way you can never forget it,” Sharon said. “He still was in therapy. So I have my wedding dress in one hand and this huge duffel bag with all of his wound care in the other. I definitely did my fair share of wound care.”
Deciding what’s next
Tony figured he would never be a pilot again, but in 2014 it was time to think about getting back to work.
“I was looking for something where I could stay in aviation but not actually still be working as a pilot,” he said. “The job that was most interesting to me is what I’m doing now. I compile aeronautical data from different countries and put that together. I don’t make flight plans, but I actually make the charts and the navigational tools and the data sets that pilots reference when they’re in the cockpit.”
That new job was based in Denver, so the Carrs headed west again. His schedule at Boeing was three days a week in the office and two days at home. When the pandemic hit in 2020, it changed to permanent remote work status.
“Part of the good side of COVID was we showed we were an organization that could telecommute effectively,” Tony said.
“That opened up doors to a whole new thought process,” he added. “We had thought as long as I’m in this job, which I enjoy, we need to be where my job is. During the summer of 2020, we came to Bemidji for a kind of test run. I plugged in and did my work, and we were saying this is something that could work for us.”
They enjoyed Colorado’s natural beauty and outdoor activities but found that Bemidji had some of the same qualities. And a colder climate location makes things easier for Tony, whose numerous skin grafts make him susceptible to both hot and cold temperatures. He explained he can always put more clothing on in the cold, but there’s not much defense against the heat.
"The truth is it was getting a little bit expensive as far as the cost of living out there, and in addition to that just overall population growth, congestion, traffic and things that come from living in a big city,” Tony said. “It was starting to wear on Sharon and me.”
He put in a formal request with Boeing to move to Minnesota, and when it was approved, he and Sharon, along with their daughters Loralee, 7, and Madalyn, 4, headed back to Bemidji in June of this year.
Tony found out about 218 Relocate and reached out to Greater Bemidji Assistant Director Erin Echternach, who coordinates the program. The Carrs were reimbursed for their moving expenses, their oldest daughter was enrolled in Northern Elementary, the same school her mother attended, and Tony went about his business of ensuring safe Boeing flights.
“It’s turned out to be great,” Tony said. “I think Bemidji is in a really exciting place. It’s growing and it’s attracting a lot of good people and a lot of exciting things are probably in store for the community as it grows. As telecommuting becomes more common I think the 218 Relocate program is going to be pretty important.
"If people are trying to choose between a couple of towns but this one is going to give them several thousand dollars to help with the move, that’s certainly going to be a positive that could potentially sway them in that direction. It’s paying off for both the city and the individuals who are beneficiaries of that.”
More on 218 Relocate
The 218 Relocate program was created by Greater Bemidji Economic Development to attract professionals to the community. The program has brought more than 20 new individuals and families to the Bemidji area.
With support from the George W. Neilson Foundation and Paul Bunyan Communications, 218 Relocate offers the following benefits to those who perform the majority of their employment duties remotely from a home office or co-working space:
Up to $2,500 in reimbursed moving expenses and/or qualifying telecommuter expenses not already covered by employer/company, including Gigabit internet service.
One-year membership to the LaunchPad co-working space in the historic Mayflower Building ($1,500 value).
Free access to the Community Concierge program, connecting individuals and their families to the community.
Teleworking support and tools through Effective Remote Work (provided by Justin DiRose).
One-year Associate Level membership to the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce ($335 value).