Year 2018 in Northwest Arkansas was fantastic by almost any measure.
New highways, expanded healthcare, business investments, new areas of emphasis, and national recognition as one of the nation’s best places to live were among the highlights.
The Northwest Arkansas Council staff each year pulls together a year-end summary focused on the year’s best happenings, and there’s significant room for debate. We limited the list to the Top 10, but could have easily stepped it up to a Top 15 or even Top 20. There were that many important or region-changing successes in 2018.
Remember that our list is both about the now and the future, and you’ll see that reflected in the selections.
Here are our favorites in no particular order.
It feels like Arkansas Children’s Hospital Northwest celebrated its opening in Springdale a long time back, but it was just 11 months ago. Time does fly and it really flies when there’s so much going on. Meanwhile, Mercy Northwest Arkansas continues its massive expansion and should finish up construction of a new tower at its Rogers hospital in 2019. The tower is the cornerstone of a $277 million expansion by Mercy that includes health clinics in several Northwest Arkansas communities. Despite the Mercy expansions, the new children’s hospital and other healthcare investments, it’s well recognized that Northwest Arkansas must advance healthcare more by attracting more medical specialists and expanding its healthcare-focused education offerings to keep up with the population’s needs.
$137 MILLION IMPACT
People in Northwest Arkansas know about the massive investments in mountain bike trails up in the hills and the shared-use paved trails that connect the largest cities, but everyone had to guess at the economic impact of those investments prior to 2018.
A study commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation changed that, showing $137 million in annual economic benefit created by bicycling in Northwest Arkansas.
The annual economic benefit should increase as more people become familiar with the cycling opportunities in the region.
With strong support from the Walmart Foundation and Tyson Foods, the Northwest Arkansas Council announced a four-year EngageNWA Strategic Plan that includes intentional efforts to make the region a more attractive home for new talent. Actions outlined in the plan are crucial to ensure continued success for the region’s companies. The plan involves multiple sectors throughout the region and is the first plan of its kind in the U.S.
FASTER TO XNA
You’ll find two highway projects on this list. The Arkansas Department of Transportation in April celebrated the opening of a four-mile section of the future U.S. 412 bypass of Springdale. The roadway, which cost about $100 million, is called Arkansas 612 for now as it does not have a link to U.S. 412. It makes the trip to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport a little quicker, but its primary importance is that it’s the first section of a new highway that will allow travelers to avoid traffic slowdowns that can occur in Springdale. It’ll take hundreds of millions of dollars to build the other bypass sections.
The University of Arkansas announced a $23.7 million gift in November from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation that will be helpful as the university looks to double how much research and development funding it receives each year. The investment will support strategic, operational and programmatic initiatives in the Office of Research and Innovation and the Office of Economic Development over a five-year period.
The Northwest Arkansas Council as part of its new strategic plan will assist the university as it aims to double the research funding. One goal is to see more commercialization of the research that starts on the Fayetteville campus.
INTERSTATE 49 ADVANCES
A $25 million federal grant, which was announced this month and will go to the Missouri Department of Transportation, will pay for a section of the Interstate 49 Missouri-Arkansas Connector, a roadway better known as the Bella Vista Bypass. The grant, pursued by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, will lead to two other major projects starting in Benton County, Ark. So, three separate construction projects in all. That’s good.
The two states worked to complete the project for more than 20 years, and all the necessary funding wasn’t dedicated to the project until the U.S. Department of Transportation came through with the $25 million grant this month. Shout out to the Arkansas and Missouri congressional delegations that worked to ensure that I-49’s importance was known to those in Washington.
You didn’t think we’d build a list like this and not include the region’s biggest quality-of-life investment, did you? Certainly, TheatreSquared in Fayetteville is a excellent addition, and it gets done in 2019, but it’s The Momentary in Bentonville where construction went zero to 60 in 2018. Major Momentary announcements came in September, and they included a $2 million gift from Walmart and word that the admission will be — brace your wallet — free. Yes!
GROWING SIMMONS FOODS
The biggest dollar figure on this list — $300 million — comes from a Simmons Foods project in Northwest Arkansas. The company dedicated the new plant that’s being built between Decatur and Gentry in June. The plant won’t become fully operational until 2022, but its operations should start in 2019. Founded in 1949, Simmons has poultry operations in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
THREE IN A ROW
Northwest Arkansas is what you might call a regular on the U.S. News & World Report ranking of Best Places to Live. The ranking, established three years ago, has always listed Northwest Arkansas in the Top 5. Jobs, quality of life and cost of living are key factors in the ranking.
J.B. HUNT EXPANSIONS
It’s hard to keep up with all that’s happening at J.B. Hunt Transport Services, but we’ll take a stab at it. We put the company’s impressive office tower that’s visible from I-49 on our 2017 year-end list, but the company didn’t let off the gas pedal in 2018. In March, Talk Business & Politics reported on a new 132,000-square-foot technology center that’s now coming together, and the company last month announced a new office at the Arkansas Research and Technology Center in Fayetteville where there’s space for 60 University of Arkansas interns. It’s worth noting that the J.B. Hunt technology investments come on the heels of Tyson Foods’ 2017 completion of a major technology hub in downtown Springdale. Technology advances everything in Northwest Arkansas!
These Top 10 successes create jobs, improve healthcare, reduce travel time and improve highway safety, draw positive attention to Northwest Arkansas, enhance quality of life and make the region more attractive to people who may be evaluating Northwest Arkansas as a potential new home.
Most regions of a bit more than 500,000 residents would hope for that much success in three years. Year 2019 better bring it in a big way if it’s to keep up.
Pictured at the top: Bike NWA and Phat Tire Bike Shop organized events across Northwest Arkansas in the summer 2018 that allowed riders to experience electric bicycles. Riders do get exercise when using e-bikes, and one of the best benefits is the assistance provided to riders who need a bit of help up difficult hills. E-bike purchases would be part of the $137 million in economic impact each year that stems from cycling.