Northwest Arkansas was the 22nd-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country last year, according to population estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Between 2015 and 2016, the estimated population of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area increased by 11,583 -- or 2.3 percent -- from 513,449 to 525,032, according to the Census Bureau. The metropolitan area has seen a 12.8 percent increase in population since 2010.
The Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area includes Benton, Madison and Washington counties in Arkansas and McDonald County in Missouri.
The rankings are based on percentage growth. Northwest Arkansas ranked No. 25 the previous year.
The three fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation were The Villages, Fla., with a 4.3 percent increase; Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, S.C.-N.C., with a 3.9 percent increase; and Bend-Redmond, Ore., with a 3.6 percent increase.
The Villages is a retirement community west of Orlando whose metropolitan area includes all of Sumter County, Fla. This was the fourth year in a row that The Villages ranked No. 1 in percentage population growth. Its 2016 population was estimated at 123,996.
Two metropolitan areas in Texas, Dallas and Houston, had the largest numerical increases in population, according to the Census Bureau. Each grew by more than 100,000 between 2015 and 2016.
Four metropolitan areas -- Austin, Texas; Raleigh, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; and Las Vegas -- were among both the 25 fastest-growing and the 25 largest numeric-gaining between 2015 and 2016. For all four areas, net domestic migration was a larger component of change than either net international migration or natural increase, according to a news release from the Census Bureau.
Among the nation's 10 largest metropolitan areas, Chicago was the only one that didn't grow in population between 2015 and 2016. The Chicago metropolitan area -- America's third-largest -- had a decrease in population of 19,570, or 0.2 percent, for a total of 9,512,999.
Seven of Arkansas' eight metropolitan areas grew in population from 2015 to 2016, but not by as much as Northwest Arkansas.
The Jonesboro metropolitan area was second in Arkansas -- and 105th nationwide -- with an increase of 1.1 percent from 128,390 to 129,858. Since 2010, Jonesboro has seen a 7.1 percent increase in population. The Jonesboro metropolitan area includes Craighead and Poinsett counties.
"In the past five to eight years, we've put a plan in place -- a structure that focused on safety, jobs, highways and quality of life," Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin said. "One of the biggest factors in our growth is the medical community. We are currently experiencing more than $1 billion in medical expansion, and we are one year into the medical school program at Arkansas State University."
The Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area was third in Arkansas -- and 213th nationwide -- with an increase of 0.4 percent from 731,542 to 734,622. Since 2010, the Little Rock metropolitan area has had an increase in population of 4.6 percent. The Little Rock metropolitan area includes Faulkner, Grant, Lonoke, Perry, Pulaski and Saline counties.
"I am encouraged by the steady, consistent growth of the Little Rock MSA," said Mark Stodola, mayor of Little Rock. "The demographic differences between Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock are significant. Little Rock enjoys a very diverse population. We are now a minority/majority city with 48 percent of our population Caucasian, 41 percent African-American, 7.5 percent Hispanic, and 3.5 percent Asian."
The vast majority in Northwest Arkansas are white, according to earlier census figures.
The Pine Bluff metropolitan area was the only one in Arkansas to have a decrease of population between 2015 and 2016. The estimated population of the metropolitan area dropped by 2.1 percent during that time, from 93,904 to 91,962.
Pine Bluff ranked 380 out of 393 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States in percentage population growth or decrease from 2015 to 2016. Since 2010, the Pine Bluff metropolitan area has had an 8.1 percent decrease in population. The Pine Bluff metropolitan area includes Cleveland, Jefferson and Lincoln counties.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington didn't return a message left for her Wednesday morning.
Benton County, in the northwest corner of the state, had the largest percentage increase in Arkansas, adding 7,440 -- or 3 percent -- to its population and raising the total to 258,291. Bentonville, the county seat, is home to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
"Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas, in general, is a place where people have a reasonable chance of success if they're willing to work hard, and they come with certain skill sets," said Troy Galloway, Bentonville's director of community and economic development.
By contrast, Lee County in the Delta saw the greatest decline in population -- 3.5 percent. Lee County's estimated population dropped by 335 to 9,310 last year.
Terry Sandefer, who became county judge for Lee County in January, said he hopes to attract more business to the county, but he's not sure how to do that. Sandefer said tourism has helped by luring fishermen and campers to Mississippi River State Park, but the county needs more jobs to reverse the trend of out-migration. Sandefer noted that the census count for Lee County includes inmates at the East Arkansas Regional prison unit, which has a capacity of 1,624.
Pulaski County in central Arkansas held steady with an increase in population of 318 -- or 0.1 percent -- to 393,250. Faulkner County, which is included in the Little Rock metropolitan area, had an increase of 884, or 0.7 percent, in population, ranking it No. 5 in the state for numerical population growth and No. 11 for percentage population growth.
"You always want to grow more," said Jack Bell, chief of staff for Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry. "We like growth."
Bell said Conway, which is the Faulkner County seat, had 10 percent annual population growth each decade from the 1950s through 2000.
"We're not growing at the pace we have in the last few decades, but we're still seeing some growth that we're appreciative of," he said.
Benton and Washington counties ranked first and second in numerical growth as they have for at least six years. Washington County added a net total of 3,816 residents in 2016.
Craighead County, where Jonesboro is located, ranked third for numerical growth last year, increasing its population by 1,473.
Crawford and Madison counties in Northwest Arkansas also are in the top 10 for numerical growth, both with greater population growth than Pulaski County.
Madison County's population increase of 355 -- or 2.3 percent -- ranked it No. 2 in the state in percentage increase.
Madison County's County Judge Frank Weaver was skeptical.
"That's news to me," he said Wednesday. "Right off the top of my head, I can't visually see that. It's a quandary to me. I don't know where they came up with numbers like that."
Across Arkansas, more counties continued to lose population than gain population.
However, 2016 was the second year that 27 of Arkansas' 75 counties gained population, compared with a total of 20 counties that recorded population gains in 2013 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census.
Most of the growth from 2015-16 came from the net total of 6,564 residents who moved to Northwest Arkansas from other states or other parts of Arkansas, according to the new census estimates.
"The majority of our growth comes from people moving in, indicative of the economic opportunities available here," said Mervin Jebaraj, assistant director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "The major employers recruit strongly from different regions all over the country."
The vendors for major employers, especially Wal-Mart, attract new residents, Jebaraj said.
Northwest Arkansas' unemployment rate dropped to 2.8 percent in January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month.
With such low unemployment in Northwest Arkansas, one way to fill jobs is to attract people from other areas, Jebaraj said.
Mike Harvey, interim CEO for the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the region lost jobs in 2008 and 2009, but had an average annual job growth of 9,600 to 11,500 for 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Job growth dropped off in the fall, leading Harvey to worry that low unemployment was stifling the region's ability to grow.
The slowdown likely was a pause, he said.
Civic and business leaders across the region are intent on continuing the growth, Harvey said.
"It always seems like they're looking at what's next," he said. "There's a real concerted effort to raise the standard of living here. The people are a byproduct."
In the coming months, the Census Bureau will release 2016 population estimates for cities and towns, as well as national, state and county population estimates by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin, according to a news release.
Metro on 03/23/2017
Print Headline: NW Arkansas clocks in at No. 22 for fast-growing U.S. metro areas