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Rankings hail jobs, economy in Northwest Arkansas

Region leads most others in U.S., foundation reports by Frank E. Lockwood | June 10, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

After years of vigorous growth, the economy in Northwest Arkansas continues to outpace nearly the entire country, according to rankings released early this morning by the Walton Family Foundation.

Among 54 medium-sized metropolitan areas (classified as having 500,000 to 999,999 people), the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area finished second, behind Provo-Orem, Utah, home of Brigham Young University.

Lead researcher Ross DeVol, president and chief executive officer of Heartland Forward and a fellow with the Walton Family Foundation, said the findings are based on measures including per-capita personal income, short-term and medium-term job growth, short-term and medium-term income growth, short-term and medium-term GDP growth and "the proportion of total jobs at young firms."

Heartland Forward, which DeVol describes as an "economic think-and-do-tank," is based in Bentonville and focuses on "trying to improve economic performance in the center of the country."

Of the nation's 379 metropolitan centers, the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area ranked 17th in terms of economic performance. (The designation includes Washington, Benton and Madison counties in Arkansas as well as McDonald County in southwest Missouri.)

Midland, Texas, a city of fewer than 200,000 people that is in the midst of an oil boom, led the overall list. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley and a region of almost 2 million people, was second.

An official with the Midland Chamber of Commerce said the chamber would be unable to comment until today, but pointed to a website outlining some of that community's strengths: rising home prices, increases in building permits, unemployment of 2.3% and a jump in year-over-year wages of 9.1%.

In an interview, DeVol portrayed the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area as economically vibrant.

"Northwest Arkansas is obviously one of the fastest-growing metros in the country," DeVol said Sunday. "It continues to boom."

Successful businesses are creating jobs. The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is also fueling growth. The school has long been a magnet for top Arkansas students.

Nowadays, it's a Texas brain drain, too.

Many highly talented students who could choose the University of Texas at Austin are attending school in Fayetteville instead, he said.

Attracted by favorable tuition rates, many of them opt to remain in Arkansas after they graduate, DeVol said.

In addition to expanding infrastructure, Northwest Arkansas leaders are finding other ways to make the area even more desirable, he said.

"[They've] been making investments in recreational and cultural assets like Crystal Bridges and bike paths and also investing in trying to support entrepreneurs," he added.

In Arkansas, officials were happy with the report's findings.

Graham Cobb, president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said his community offers newcomers "one heck of a life for the price."

Presenting it as a mathematical formula of sorts, Cobb said, "[High] quality of life plus [low] cost of living equals the best experience."

Walmart Stores Inc., J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. have helped to fuel the area's growth, he said.

But others who work remotely are also flooding into the area. Thanks to technology, Northwest Arkansas is "emerging as this new epicenter for entrepreneurship," Cobb said.

Rather than flocking to high-cost locales like New York City or San Francisco, they're opting for the Ozarks.

"They say 'We can move to Bentonville, Ark., where the schools are unbelievable, where it's still affordable, where it's safe and clean and where you have this wonderful outdoor recreation, great food, arts and culture [and] we can start our own business,'" Cobb added.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a native of Gravette about 18 miles west of Bentonville, foresees continued expansion ahead.

"Northwest Arkansas has created a high performance economic engine that is finally being recognized nationally. The major drivers of that economy are global companies that have successfully made the transition into high tech and logistics. The infrastructure is in place to sustain this growth for some time," he said in a text message Sunday.

The transformation of Arkansas' northwest corner has been extraordinary, Hutchinson noted.

"I was a young lawyer in Bentonville when the population was 9,000," he said. Recently, Bentonville surpassed 50,000 people, reaching 51,111 as of July 1, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Hutchinson likes what he sees.

"It has changed and the change is good for Arkansas," he said.

After decades of expansion, the pace of development remains impressive, Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said in a text message Sunday.

"Our city and region are experiencing very strong economic growth," he said. "I can say we're busier than we've ever been. Our staff is about up to their eyeballs with projects that are being planned, but that's a great problem to have."

Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman said the region has a "vibrant economy" and a "can-do" spirit.

"People from across the United States and throughout the World want to invest in our community because they see we want to build markets, the people's trust and embrace innovation," she said in a text message.

The Heartland Forward report -- titled "The Most Dynamic Metropolitans" -- cited Northwest Arkansas for its per-capita personal income, which ranked 9th "when adjusted for the cost of living," it stated.

Medium-term job growth (13th of 379) and medium-term GDP growth (11th of 379) were also strong, though short-term job growth (92nd) and short-term GDP growth (57th) showed signs of decelerating.

"Economic growth did moderate in 2018, but it could not have continued at its rapid pace with unemployment down to 2.9 percent," the report noted.

The Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers area has grown nearly 600% over the past six decades, rising from 92,069 people in 1960 to 549,128 in 2018, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Much of that expansion coincided with the rise of Walmart. The company, which opened its first store in Rogers in 1962, is now the world's largest retailer.

While the northern portion of the state's I-49 corridor is booming, other areas are losing ground or barely keeping up, the report suggested.

Elsewhere, Jonesboro fared best at No. 148, followed by Hot Springs (No. 245), Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway (No. 251), the Texarkana metropolitan area (No. 336) and Fort Smith (No. 352). Pine Bluff, at No. 375, was five spots from the bottom, just ahead of Elmira, N.Y.; Lafayette, La.; Peoria, Ill.; and Houma-Thibodaux, La. The Memphis metropolitan area, which includes West Memphis and the surrounding area, was No. 244.

Overall, 13 of the top 30 areas were in Southern states; seven were from states along the Pacific Ocean; eight were in the Intermountain West, and two -- Midland, Mich. and Elkhart-Goshen, Ind. -- were in the Midwest.

Metropolitan areas in the Northeast and New England failed to make the top-30 list.

A Section on 06/10/2019

Print Headline: Rankings hail jobs, economy in Northwest Arkansas

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