One must guard against being overly optimistic when contemplating the future of a state. Realism is a requirement. Still, it's evident that continued growth in northwest Arkansas is a given.
As pointed out in last Sunday's column, Walmart's annual U.S. retail sales revenue dwarfs that of the No. 2 company on the list (Amazon). The smart management team at Walmart isn't resting, either. The company is moving quickly into the e-commerce world in order to battle Amazon on its own turf.
At J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods, equally smart management teams are making sure that their companies continue to innovate.
Meanwhile, Walton family members pour billions of charitable dollars into the Walton Family Foundation. They seem intent on doing whatever it takes--from mountain biking trails to fine restaurants--to give northwest Arkansas the best quality of life of any region its size in the country.
As Arkansas prepares to move into the third decade of the 21st century, the state has only three solid growth regions: northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metropolitan area, and the Jonesboro-to-Paragould corridor. There are some college towns and tourism-oriented communities that are holding their own. But as far as multi-county regions experiencing growth, that's about it.
In an era of rapid urbanization, when the majority of Arkansas' 75 counties are losing population, the Little Rock and Jonesboro areas must continue doing well if Arkansas as a whole is to do well. Northwest Arkansas can't carry the state by itself.
In looking at those other two growth areas, we'll start with Jonesboro.
The city's population has increased from 47,164 in 1990 to about 77,000 today. Jonesboro was blessed with the presence of Arkansas State University and with low utility rates. That allowed it to become both an education center and a manufacturing center. Most towns are either/or. The fact that Jonesboro is both sets it apart from a once-thriving place like Blytheville, which has seen its population drop from almost 24,000 in 1990 to about 14,000 today.
Jonesboro also has been helped in recent decades by a growing impression that Memphis is a dangerous city and a tough place to get around in traffic. Those are factors when older Arkansans decide where to spend their money.
For decades, northeast Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis. People in places like Harrisburg and Osceola went to Memphis to visit medical specialists, to shop and to dine out on special occasions. They watched Memphis television stations, listened to Memphis radio stations, and read the Memphis newspaper. They're now more likely to go to Jonesboro to see the doctor, shop and dine out. They consume Jonesboro media.
The late great Mississippi writer Willie Morris said the two most important cities in his home state were Memphis and New Orleans. In that same vein, Memphis was the most important city for northeast Arkansas for decades. Now, Jonesboro has established itself as a true regional capital.
The plan going forward must be an intense focus on the same quality-of-life amenities that Walton family members are stressing in northwest Arkansas (without the Walton billions). Fortunately, Jonesboro's decision makers are finally keying on downtown development rather than having all growth along the congested suburban-like sprawl that's Red Wolf Boulevard.
Last month, a group known as Team Jonesboro unveiled projects that could be supported by a proposed 1-cent sales tax that would sunset in 12 years. The tax would produce an estimated $200 million during those dozen years. After setting aside almost half the money for the police and fire departments, proceeds would be spent on amenities such as an aquatics center, a volleyball complex, dog parks, biking and hiking trails, park upgrades, a children's museum and theater improvements. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century--when economic development is about attracting highly educated people rather than factories--such amenities are necessary. A special election on the tax will be held in September.
In Little Rock, the population has grown from 177,189 in 1990 to about 200,000 today. From a percentage standpoint, Pulaski County's growth since 1990 has been far behind three adjoining high-growth counties: Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke. Despite that fact, I'm bullish on Little Rock. That's because the capital city has laid the groundwork in two vital areas when it comes to attracting and retaining educated residents with high disposable incomes: outdoor activities and the arts.
Little Rock received a boost recently when Outside magazine rated it as one of the 12 best places to live in the country. Such subjective lists are a dime a dozen, but Outside is respected by outdoors enthusiasts. A spot on this list is a marketing bonanza for the folks at the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The city is in good company. Other cities on the list are New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, Tucson, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Charleston and Reno.
"While northwest Arkansas deserves its designation as America's next mountain biking paradise, Little Rock, smack-dab in the state's geographic center, is an undiscovered multisport oasis," the magazine said. "With plenty of interconnected trails splintering off their bungalow-lined drags, the city's adjoining Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods offer easy access to all manner of trail runs, hikes and rides."
Leaders such as former Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines were prescient when it came to developing the Arkansas River Trail and a series of bridges across the Arkansas river for cyclists, hikers and joggers. Those investments are now paying dividends.
In the area of the arts, the $70 million renovation of downtown's Robinson Center, which was completed in late 2016, is also paying dividends. Throw in the massive renovation of the Arkansas Arts Center ($128 million is being raised for that project), which is about to begin.
Also add to the mix the growth of organizations such as the Arkansas Cinema Society, which is modeled after the Austin Film Society in Texas. The Austin Film Society now has a $6 million annual budget and has created an estimated 2,500 jobs in Austin. Arkansas Cinema Society director Kathryn Tucker thinks it's possible to do the same thing in Little Rock.
Continued efforts to address the nagging problems of crime and poor public schools must be a given if Little Rock is to grow. Another necessity is an organized campaign by civic, business and government leaders to convince the governor and legislators to quit under-funding the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
The other key to growth is infill development, especially the creation of a vibrant downtown. Those associated with the Little Rock Technology Park are searching for ways to finance a $26 million expansion. It's imperative that they obtain that financing. The first phase of the downtown incubator, which opened in April 2017, has been an overwhelming success. The almost 40,000 square feet of co-working, office and meeting space has been a godsend for the city's growing technology sector.
A city hailed by Outside as one of the nation's 12 best; an expanding arts scene; a growing technology sector. Once you put those pieces together, it becomes easier to be bullish on Little Rock.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 08/04/2019