Pandemic Turned Aside Region’s 2019 Gains, Economist Says

Northwest Arkansas’ small businesses, hotels, restaurants and indoor leisure destinations are among the places hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Arkansas economist said today during an annual briefing.

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research, shared the sobering news with more than 300 people on a Zoom event as part of a larger presentation focused on the State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report.

The report’s data compares how Northwest Arkansas stacks up against six selected peer regions, and the newest available annual data is from 2018 and 2019. Jebaraj explained how much has changed since the pandemic started impacting Northwest Arkansas earlier this year. He described how small businesses have suffered due to the pandemic, how federal stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment payments lessened the pandemic’s impact on the state’s residents, and how new federal stimulus payments would be helpful to the region’s overall economy.

The State of the Northwest Arkansas Region Report has been published each year by the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research for a decade. It highlights how Northwest Arkansas compares statistically to high-performing peer regions across the U.S. Those peer regions are Des Moines, Iowa; Madison, Wisc.; Austin, Texas; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.; Provo-Orem, Utah; and Raleigh-Cary, N.C.

The Northwest Arkansas Council commissions the work by the university.

Economists familiar with the comparison have described keeping up with Austin, Des Moines and the other peers as a “stretch goal” for Northwest Arkansas. While Northwest Arkansas consistently performs well economically, all of its selected peers are recognized as some of the nation’s most successful places.

Despite stiff competition, Northwest Arkansas outperforms its peers in some categories.

The report published today, for example, shows Northwest Arkansas was at or near the top for its low unemployment rate, low housing costs and short commute times. The region was at the bottom, however, in educational attainment, annual wages and research and development expenditures, the report shows.

One of the region’s biggest improvements came in the cost of domestic airfares. Airfares remain more expensive than the peer regions, but the $485 average cost of a roundtrip in 2019 was 9.6% less than the previous year. Northwest Arkansas National Airport saw record traffic in 2019, and the competition created by XNA newcomer Frontier Airlines was among several factors that helped lower average fares.

The highest performing peers in the latest report are Austin, Provo and Raleigh. Austin ranked No. 1 on a U.S. News & World Report ranking of Best Places to Live in the U.S., but Northwest Arkansas (No. 4), Des Moines (No. 5), the combined area of Raleigh and Durham (No. 10), and Madison (No. 12) were top performers in the U.S. News analysis, too.

The other presentation during today’s State of the Northwest Arkansas Region event focused on the Northwest Arkansas Council’s efforts to support local human resources managers by helping their companies recruit talent from metropolitan areas across the U.S. 

The Council has utilized LinkedIn to connect with hundreds of people in cities such as San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago, and many people have expressed a willingness to move to Northwest Arkansas for the right job opportunity, said Mike Harvey, the Council’s chief operating officer. The Council targets a large group of difficult-to-fill positions, including data scientists and software developers.

What the Council is finding is that many workers being contacted via LinkedIn in distant metropolitan areas aren’t familiar with many aspects of Northwest Arkansas. While many know it’s the home of the University of Arkansas and the corporate headquarters of Walmart, they may not know about its world-class art museum, its impressive mountain bike trail systems or that its cost of living is low compared to other regions.