By Mike Malone
It might well be impossible to capture everything that was 2013 in a region so dynamic as Northwest Arkansas, but that won’t stop me from trying to hit the high points with a peek toward what might be ahead in 2014.
From national recognition for its businesses, its schools, its universities and its residents, Northwest Arkansas had a fantastic 2013 and I believe there are good reasons to think 2014 will be just as solid for a region on the cusp of reaching 500,000 residents.
I challenged myself to summarize the region’s success in 500 words. I failed. OK, then 1,000 words. Nope. We had more than 1,600 words’ worth of success. Here’s how I see where we were and where we’re headed.
Job Creation – Jobs were created at a rate last seen more than a decade ago with Serco, American Tubing and Redman and Associates all announcing major job expansions in the region, and thousands more jobs were created at large and small companies in the past 12 months. When the final 2013 job growth numbers are out, I expect the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan statistical area to be in the Top 10 out of the nearly 400 MSAs nationwide in percentage job growth. This is a major accomplishment as we’ve finished in the Top 10 in percentage job growth just once (2001) in the past.
Job growth should continue in 2014. Dozens of employers are working with area chambers of commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to add jobs through business expansions. We know several companies are actively considering locations in Northwest Arkansas.
In 2013, we saw Walmart promise to spend an additional $50 billion over the next 10 years on U.S. manufactured goods. We saw commitments from Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and other area companies to hire our nation’s veterans. Those are positive steps toward hiring in Northwest Arkansas and for the entire U.S.
For the first time, Northwest Arkansas placed three companies in the Fortune 500. We live in the only metropolitan area with fewer than 500,000 residents to have this many companies on the list. If you compare Northwest Arkansas to the 50 states, this region had more Fortune 500 companies than 19 other states.
Finally, there’s promising activity on the startup scene and among the region’s emerging companies. Four companies recently founded in our region received nearly $100 million in venture capital investment in the course of a couple of weeks last spring from outside-the-region investors. Those investments allowed these homegrown companies to create jobs and expand in exciting ways. We see startups and entrepreneurship as a key growth strategy for our region.
Talent Engagement and Development – We must have our workforce engaged and prepared going forward to ensure future job growth, and there’s lots of regional work occurring on both fronts.
Our local schools accomplished a great deal in 2013 and they are a key part of development. The Northwest Arkansas education report card, which will come out within a few days, shows this region’s schools are improving. More students are attending colleges and universities, and student scores on national exams are improving at primary and secondary schools.
U.S. Census Bureau data released in 2013 shows educational attainment rates (the percentage of working-age residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher) increased from 25.2 percent in 2009 to 27.1 percent in 2012. Local high schools and higher educational institutions all contributed to that success. We hope to continue to increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders through efforts such as Graduate NWA, a program aimed at getting Northwest Arkansans with some college credit back in school to finish degrees.
The Springdale School District was one of only six school districts in the nation selected for a Race To the Top district grant by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. They will receive $25.9 million to create innovative learning opportunities for students in our region.
We also saw lots of work in 2013 put toward helping Northwest Arkansas residents more actively engage with their communities and toward making those communities stronger, including the Second Annual Northwest Arkansas Volunteer Fair. The fair helped nonprofit organizations connect with motivated, willing volunteers.
Moreover, an online diversity resource guide was developed to serve as a one-stop site to highlight the region’s cultural amenities, services and select programs.
Special, unique events were held throughout the year, including The Road to Essence Festival that featured Grammy Award-winning artists, and the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, a terrific LPGA tournament. Those two were among several terrific events that drew large regional audiences.
Infrastructure Development – A primary reason that Northwest Arkansas is on the move is because key infrastructure shortfalls are being addressed.
Lots of great work has started on our region’s highways. We’re now seeing Interstate 540’s widening and improvements will occur in segments over the next few years. Early in 2014, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department should hire a contractor to build the largest piece of the Bella Vista Bypass. Also in 2014, the Highway Department plans to let the contract to build a portion of the long-awaited U.S. 412 Bypass (also known as the “Springdale Northern Bypass”) from I-540 west to Highway 112.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2013. With 14 non-stop destinations, travelers continue to be one to two flights from anywhere in the world. Airport officials are working hard to recruit daily low-cost air service to XNA.
The Razorback Regional Greenway hard-surface trail construction progressed in 2013 and the full 36-mile corridor should be completed in mid-2014. With more than 100 miles of soft-surface trails also in the region, our area is becoming a recreational destination for hiking and biking enthusiasts. A new website helps residents and visitors access the great – and growing – regional trail network.
Finally, a new regional wayfinding sign system to guide people to key destinations in seven Northwest Arkansas cities began going up in 2013. Similar-looking signs were installed in Bella Vista, Eureka Springs, Rogers, Lowell, Springdale, Fayetteville and Siloam Springs. Each community’s signs will have their own unique aspects, but they are similar enough that they’ll create a consistent system to guide people to destinations as they move from city to city.
Arts, Culture and Recreational Amenities Grew – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art welcomed its one-millionth visitor after less than two years in operation. A widely attended exhibit of the works of Norman Rockwell was especially popular early in 2013. The art collection grew during the year with impressive acquisitions, including a work by Mark Rothko and two Andy Warhol pieces that drew national attention.
The Walton Arts Center had an excellent year with major Broadway performances, including the Jersey Boys, an expanded Artosphere festival and voter approval in Fayetteville to expand the Dickson Street facility. This will update the 22-year old facility both from a technical perspective and a visitor experience perspective. Construction is underway on a permanent facility for the Arkansas Music Pavilion (the AMP) in Rogers.
Downtowns throughout Northwest Arkansas are vibrant and growing. Even with the positive momentum in every downtown, additional work is underway to identify downtown economic benchmarks, facilitate the creation or updating of downtown master plans, strengthen or establish downtown organizations, and identify the key leadership needed to keep downtown momentum going.
Cities in the region continue to add quality-of-life amenities. In Rogers, the Aquatic Center opened this past summer and it immediately became a must-do for families. In November, Fayetteville voters approved funding for a regional park and Bentonville broke ground on a community recreation center.
National Recognition – Northwest Arkansas received national attention and praise. I know, I know. Big surprise? Hardly, but it’s worth noting.
Crystal Bridges was featured in numerous national publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.
Trip Advisor, the world’s largest travel website, recognized Bentonville’s 21c Hotel as the nation’s top new hotel and the fourth best new hotel in the world.
In 2013, the Northwest Arkansas Tourism Association worked with US Airways on a Northwest Arkansas-focused magazine that was provided to 6 million passengers on US Airways flights in July.
Nearly 300 of our friends and neighbors signed up to become Digital Ambassadors for Northwest Arkansas. They are helping us get the word out through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter about how Northwest Arkansas is truly Great for Business and Great for Life. It’s one of the region’s top tools for sharing positive messages about Northwest Arkansas.
#NWA500k – As a boy who grew up in Northwest Arkansas, I remember when it was much smaller. That’s why I’m most excited about welcoming our 500,000th resident to the MSA sometime in mid-2014.
Hitting that 500,000 milestone should help us grow quality jobs because some companies don’t consider relocating to regions with fewer than 500,000 residents.
This also keeps us on the path toward becoming one of the 100 largest MSAs. We’re No. 107 as of the last U.S. Census Bureau estimate, but we’ve calculated that we’re already bigger than No. 106 (Sorry, Lexington, Kentucky!). Because we’re not in the Top 100, we often aren’t in the running for places-rated lists when we know we’d compete well with larger metros. Quality growth helps our region’s governmental and private institutions add quality-of-life amenities that make this a great place to live.
This was a long year-end report, but it didn’t come close to capturing all the regional accomplishments and successes of 2013. There’s much more work ahead in 2014. From all that I see, it’s easy to say Northwest Arkansas is truly Great for Business and Great for Life.
Mike Malone, a Fayetteville native, is president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council.