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Investments in entrepreneurs and business startup programs must increase if the region is to keep pace with the places that serve as Northwest Arkansas’ benchmark communities, a leading economist said today.

Kathy Deck, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, made that assessment as she discussed the findings in the State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report at a luncheon in Lowell.

Federal data shows Northwest Arkansas had 12,325 businesses at the end of 2015, and the number of businesses had increased just 1.3 percent annually since 2010. Business establishment growth in benchmark regions such as Austin, Des Moines and Madison increased 2.4 to 4.4 percent annually over the same time period, the data shows.

The 2016 State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report, which was commissioned by the Northwest Arkansas Council, provides an annual update on how the region stacks up against five top regions in the U.S. Those five regions were identified as new benchmarks when the Council developed a three-year strategic plan for 2015-2017.

Deck said Northwest Arkansas has some strengths when its compared with those other regions. While the Northwest Arkansas median household income ($50,788 in 2015) isn’t as high as the benchmark regions, the cost of homeownership compared to income is better in Northwest Arkansas. Homeownership requires just 15.6 percent of incomes, and it’s a higher percentage in Austin (19.3 percent), Madison (19 percent) and Des Moines (17.4 percent). Housing is more affordable in the region and the federal data proves it, Deck said.

The overall report compares Northwest Arkansas with five benchmark regions in areas such as academic research spending, educational attainment, commuting times, poverty, metropolitan gross domestic product and unemployment. Northwest Arkansas compares favorably with those regions in several key areas.

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