With big developments in infrastructure, athletics, housing and even food, it’s hard to think of a subject that didn’t bring some good news to Northwest Arkansas in 2023. Since each year’s successes serve as a foundation for the next, we’re highlighting our picks for 2023’s Top 10 highlights.
Here are the selections in chronological order.
1. NWA and its residents excel on the national stage
Our first highlight is the exception to chronological order because it’s a year-round fact: Northwest Arkansas, as well as its individual residents, businesses and organizations, are among the country’s best, most skilled and most noteworthy in their respective arenas. The proof is in the rankings:
- NWA is among U.S. News’ Top 10 places to live for 8th year, the No. 2 most cutting-edge mid-size metro – The Wall Street Journal, 9 on Milken’s ranking of nation’s best cities, No. 34 in Heartland Forward’s most dynamic metros, and the No. 5 market in the U.S. – Synergos Technologies Inc.
- Bentonville’s the No. 2 best small town for adventure – USA Today, is one of the South’s best cities – Southern Living, and its street arts scenes is one of America’s most exciting – Fifty Grande.
- Fayetteville’s one of Southern Living’s best college towns.
- U of A Graduate Entrepreneurship Program ranks No. 1 in SEC, Top 50 internationally.
- New Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design named Future Project of the Year.
- AcreTrader is Fast Company’s No. 2 most innovative company in personal finance.
- George’s Majestic Lounge is one of America’s favorite local music venues.
- TheatreSquared wins design and architecture awards and is the first Arkansas theatre honored by the Obie Awards.
- Bentonville’s Sweet Freedom Cheese is one of America’s 10 most iconic cheese shops – Wine Enthusiast.
- Chef Rafael Rios is the sole Arkansas rep in 2023 James Beard Awards semi-finals.
Alice L. Walton School of Medicine (AWSOM) in March celebrated the start of construction on 14 acres of land dedicated to the new medical education facility east of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Pending programmatic accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the school plans to welcome its first class of 48 students in 2025.
“This building will be a place for community and a bridge to the future of medical education,” said Dr. Sharmila Makhija, founding dean and CEO. “The school is poised to be a state-of-the-art learning facility, connected to nature and the community. Alongside our health system partners and neighbors, we’ll activate students and reshape medical education by addressing mental, physical, social, and emotional health.”
USA Cycling opened a satellite office and made Bentonville the new home of the U.S. Mountain Bike National Team during a kickoff event in April at Ledger, the world’s first bikeable building. The organization announced the move in December 2022 as young athletes set their sights on success leading into the 2028 Olympic Games.
The NWA metropolitan statistical area, which consists of Benton, Madison and Washington counties, saw its population increase to 576,403 people by July 1, 2022, the latest public estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau showed in May. That moved NWA up two spots to reach No. 100 in population, passing Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The Census estimate also makes clear just how fast Northwest Arkansas is seeing its population go up, increasing by 36 people a day between April 2020, when the official U.S. Census was taken, and July 2022.
Professional men’s and women’s soccer teams are coming to Northwest Arkansas, with players taking to the field as soon as 2026.
The United Soccer League (USL), the largest professional soccer organization in North America, announced in July that it’s partnering with locally-based USL Arkansas to bring the world’s most popular sport to the state for the first time. The partners plan to build a 5,000-seat multipurpose stadium in Rogers’ Pinnacle Hills entertainment district near Bellview and New Hope roads.
Groundwork, previously the Northwest Arkansas workforce housing center, in July announced its first investment in an attainable housing development to be constructed in Springdale. The development is supported with $6.75 million from the Walton Family Foundation.
The project, dubbed “Big Emma,” is a 77-unit mixed-income apartment development located on Emma Avenue downtown. The investment from Groundwork ensures 30 of the units will be permanently reserved for households earning below the area median income.
Washington Regional Medical Center is the top hospital in the state for the third year in a row and the best in the Ozark region for a fifth year, according to the latest ranking by U.S. News & World Report.
U.S. News, which also ranks the nation’s best schools and places to live, evaluates thousands of hospitals based on patient outcomes, staffing, physician referrals and other measures. Washington Regional was designated “high-performing” in a dozen categories, including maternity care, lung cancer and heart attacks, meaning its rate of success was in the top 10% of hospitals evaluated.
Arkansas Children’s Northwest in August received a $25 million donation from the Willard & Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, the largest gift ever received by the hospital or given by the foundation.
Half of the gift will go toward the Springdale hospital’s previously announced expansion, which will focus on boosting ear, nose and throat services, orthopedics, gastroenterology and urology. The other half will create an endowment to help recruit medical specialists, purchase equipment and meet other needs.
The past 25 years brought airline bankruptcies and mergers, the 2001 terrorist attacks that crippled the aviation industry, a massive economic downturn in 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also brought new flights and low-cost airlines, a parking deck and other expansions, a redesignation from a regional airport to a national one, and passenger numbers nearing 1 million this year. The airport in November celebrated a quarter-century with help from Alice Walton, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former President Bill Clinton.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation in November approved Emery Sapp & Sons Inc.’s $180.87 million bid to extend Arkansas 612, or Springdale Northern Bypass, from Arkansas 112 to U.S. 412.
The first bypass segment from Interstate 49 to Arkansas 112 opened in 2018. The contractor expects the second phase of 612 to begin in spring or early summer and for construction to take about 28 months. The four-lane, divided freeway will include 16 bridges and three interchanges, including one for the connector road to XNA.
Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research makes strides in prosthesis, other areas
The University of Arkansas’ Institute for Integrative & Innovative Research (I³R) in August was awarded a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to expand a clinical trial for an innovative neural-enabled prosthesis currently occurring at the university campus and including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as an additional clinical trial site. The program is one of several at the Institute, whose state-of-the-art, 144,000-square-foot facility is expected to open late next year.
The Razorback Greenway was one of nine new national recreation trails in nine states designated by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in June. These trails are jointly coordinated and administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with certain federal and nonprofit partners.
“National recreation trails, including these new designations, are some of our country’s highest caliber trails and provide close-to-home recreation opportunities and the benefits of spending time outdoors,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in the announcement. “They can be used by everyone and provide for the ever-increasing recreation needs of our growing population, especially in urban areas.”