The Northwest Arkansas Council convened its full membership for its Annual Meeting on July 14 at the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale. The Council welcomed Accenture, Arkansas Community Foundation and Waste Management as new members and released its 2021-2022 Annual Report.
Attendees also had the chance to learn about the Council’s new five-year regional strategy. Council leadership touched on topics ranging from quality of life initiatives and the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem to advancements in workforce development. The day’s theme was clear: Northwest Arkansas has reached a critical inflection point. There is a lot of work to do to ensure the region maintains its incredible quality of life.
Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, expressed his excitement about the growth of areas such as technology and entrepreneurship. He mentioned the University of Arkansas’ Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R) park, which will house innovation clusters for research across five overlapping focus areas.
While innovation and entrepreneurship remain a priority for the strategy, Peacock shared that health care will receive higher focus than in years past. The Council’s Health Care Transformation Division will continue identifying ways to improve the health care experience for residents and visitors of Northwest Arkansas.
Northwest Arkansas has experienced a boom over the past decade, and much of that can be attributed to the region’s incredible job opportunities, a great quality of life and a relatively low cost of living. This is a tremendous success, as seen with the Northwest Arkansas being ranked No. 4 in the nation for population growth, No. 3 in the nation for job growth and No. 2 in the nation for pay growth. Northwest Arkansas surpassed Austin as the No. 4 best place to live in America as of 2021. With these successes, challenges have arisen, such as Benton County housing prices increasing 43% in the past five years and Washington County housing prices up by 47%. It is crucial to address the region’s growing housing affordability challenges.
A low cost of living must remain part of the region’s brand since the rise of remote work has given people more flexibility on where they choose to live. The Council must continue to promote the region as a preeminent lifestyle destination.
The Council will also remain diligent in its efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive community for all through Engage NWA and continue the Life Works Here initiative to capture the attention and interest of talent from all over the country looking for a better quality of life.
As Peacock shared a summary of the effort, he reinforced the Council’s intention of remaining diligent in preserving quality of life as Northwest Arkansas continues to grow at such a fast pace and as a destination for talented workers.
Richard Florida, a global expert on urbanism and founder of The Creative Class Group, presented a more in-depth look at the Council’s strategic plan and why it’s important to act upon these priorities now. “Northwest Arkansas is experiencing a crisis of success,” he said. “Fast growth leads to challenging situations, such as housing and infrastructure, that can threaten the core pillar of quality of life. Now is the time to recalibrate and realign.” He recommended that the region grow smarter, better and more inclusively.
The region has done a great job growing the talent pool with professionals working across diverse industries. Florida pointed out a trend in the workforce: people want to work on great projects with great people in great spaces and places. Employees aren’t looking for just a job or career, but also a social life. “We need to work harder to engage talent socially, especially among women and minorities,” Florida suggested. “We need to do more for these people.”
He also explained that inclusivity has to be at the center of everything regarding attracting and retaining talent. “People who don’t feel welcome will leave. It’s not sensitivity training, it’s economic development.”
Other recommendations provided:
- Bolster innovation and entrepreneurship. According to Florida, two thirds of young people want to be creators and innovators; therefore, we must be able to train young people in the creation economy.
- Airport interregional pooling. The region should be proud of its airport strategy, but improved collaboration with neighboring regions can elevate the area exponentially.
- Expand civic capacity. Advance policy and civic engagement to support the region’s economic development interests.
- Address growth challenges to preserve quality of life, including housing affordability and transportation. Cycling isn’t just a sport; it creates mobility for talent.
- Regardless of political preference, the region must continue to create an inclusive community.
Florida made it clear that the time to act is now. “There is no other community like Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “The steps we take now will determine what we will see in the next four to five years.”