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The Northwest Arkansas Council last week hosted its annual State of the Northwest Arkansas Region event in partnership with the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business. The report, first published in 2011, compares Northwest Arkansas to high-performing peer regions across the country. Business and community leaders also learned about the opportunities and challenges that come with the explosive growth in Northwest Arkansas.

Nelson Peacock, president & CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, explained the purpose behind the report. “We’re holding ourselves to the highest standards,” he stated. The report is a benchmark comparison of the top economic development communities throughout the country, including Austin, Des Moines, Madison, Durham-Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Provo-Orem, and Northwest Arkansas.

The peer regions overview study within the report shows Northwest Arkansas trailing its contemporaries in two areas — the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher and research and development expenditures. Peacock underscored the Council’s commitment to addressing these issues. “We’re learning a lot from similar high-performing economic communities that have already experienced the growth ahead of us.”

Rick Cole is the executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides resources, education and technical assistance to create equitable, resilient places that people love. Cole believes that vibrant and prosperous places to live and work should be the birthright of every American, including Northwest Arkansans. He commended NWA’s beautiful landscapes, distinctive historical cities and other qualities that make the area a desirable place to live. “This is in danger,” he warned. “You blink and this is all going to change, and it’s either for the better or for the worse.”

Building placeless sprawl creates adverse effects on the environment, increases infrastructure maintenance costs, and decreases the quality of life both for people living here and for the people we’re wanting to recruit. Cole reflected back to the early days of suburban sprawl that used rigid zoning which led to dispersed, divided and disconnected communities.

“What I’m urging you to do is to look 10 to 20 years down the road and think about what we should be doing now to ensure that we have the best possible outcomes in the future,” said Cole. He explained that growth should be targeted to meet community needs, and the community must be involved in determining what will make our cities greater. If we grow without thinking through how the community wants and needs to grow, our sprawl will get exponentially worse.

In the last 10 years, population and job growth have outpaced housing growth. If the region doesn’t address this soon, it will begin to see some of the high housing prices and difficulty to compete that other regions are currently experiencing. “People can live anywhere now,” continued Cole, “and they are going to prioritize communities in which their interests and values are reflected.” By providing walkable neighborhoods, community gathering spaces, and multiple living options, such as duplexes, apartment buildings and other affordable housing options, we enhance the quality of life across the board. People who are younger have access to the kind of housing and recreation that fits their lifestyle, and older people are able to retire to areas where they can walk and use public transit, therefore not as dependent upon cars. This diverse ecosystem requires vision and foresight.

Creating neighborhood fabric, smart growth, and a transportation network is not only good for attracting the right workforce but will also lead to higher property values without displacing existing residents. Cole recommended advocating for form-based codes to create “compact, complete and connected places that people love.”

Mervin Jebaraj is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas Walton College of Business. Jebaraj presented trends in the national economy, as well as the economic landscape of the region. His research spanned topics such as GDP, consumer spending, bank rates and the labor force. While the region still has work to do in many areas, Jebaraj’s overall assessment was positive. “People continue to move here,” he said, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Some of the key takeaways from Jebaraj’s discussion were:

  • Northwest Arkansas’ population grew by 4.8% between 2019-2021. The continued population growth in Northwest Arkansas is a testament to the popularity of this region for individuals and families seeking better economic opportunities in a vibrant region. This growth also supports new and existing businesses and adds to the economic vitality of the region.
  • The region’s median income has grown 16.4% since 2019. Compared to the aspirational peer regions, this was the fastest pace of growth. The median income in the region still lags most other peer regions and indicates that there is room for improvement in this metric. Relatedly, the region has the lowest share of residents with a college degree compared to peer regions, which partially explains the lower median income in the region.
  • Home prices in Northwest Arkansas are growing rapidly. As home prices in Northwest Arkansas grow at a rapid pace, it makes the region less affordable for new and existing residents, denying people the opportunity to participate and benefit from the booming economy in the region. The region should pursue solutions that will deliver a variety of housing types at lower prices to make sure that it can sustain one of the key drivers of the region’s growth — the low cost of living.

To view the research, visit this link.

For a copy of the full State of the Northwest Arkansas Region report, click here.

Special thanks to our major investors for their support of the Northwest Arkansas Council and our work in the region: