OPINION | REX NELSON: A region thrives

The numbers were as unsurprising as they were impressive. Northwest Arkansas is still among the fastest-growing areas of the country. But if you think the folks there are getting complacent, think again.

Recently released figures from the 2020 U.S. census show that Benton County grew 28.5 percent in the 10 years leading up to the census (221,339 to 284,333) while Washington County grew 21.1 percent (203,065 to 245,871). The next two closest Arkansas counties in terms of growth were Craighead County in northeast Arkansas at 15.3 percent and Saline County in central Arkansas at 15.2 percent.

Two things northwest Arkansas has going for it are its spirit of cooperation and its emphasis on planning. That effort continues with an economic development strategy for the region from the Heartland Forward think tank in Bentonville. Launched in 2019 with Walton money, Heartland Forward is the first think tank that exclusively targets the middle of the country.

Heartland Forward also designed a strategy for the entire state. Many of the same people were involved. They include:

• Ross DeVol, the Heartland Forward president who spent almost 20 years at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank in California.

• Dave Shideler, chief research officer at Heartland Forward.

• Richard Florida, the world's leading urbanist and the author of several best-selling books.

• Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Heartland Forward and a fellow at Chapman University.

"The region cannot afford to be complacent," the authors write. "A comprehensive and intentional post-pandemic recovery strategy can build off key strategies and investments put in place during the past decade to strengthen the region's economy. Specifically, the region should leverage its knowledge and university base; arts and culture offerings; outdoor recreation; biking infrastructure and ... national airport among other things to build an even more vibrant, inclusive, healthy and resilient economy."

The report outlines what it calls seven "big ideas." They are:

• Become the heartland's leading small region for talent.

• Be the heartland's best small place for arts, culture and recreation.

• Grow the economy and jobs around big company anchors.

• Bolster the region's small business and startup ecosystems.

• Make inclusion and diversity a priority.

• Put health at the center of the agenda.

• Rebrand and market the region.

"The region has made great strides in attracting talent," the authors state. "We believe its combination of well-known, successful corporate anchors, flagship land-grant research university, affordability and livability enable it to do much more.

"Superstar cities and tech hubs on the coasts have been attracting people who fuel the innovation economy. But the combination of the covid-19 crisis, which has generally impacted lower-density areas less than key urban concentrations, and the long-term affordability challenges that have emerged in the Northeast and on the West Coast have contributed to the rising appeal of small regions across the heartland.

"This is especially true of families who are looking for more affordable communities that offer abundant economic opportunity and lifestyle amenities. Northwest Arkansas is among the leading U.S. metro areas to take advantage of these shifts."

The authors believe northwest Arkansas can become the top small region for talent in the middle part of the country by offering families and remote workers a good place to live.

"The region should create a talent moonshot initiative, investing resources to attract the 100 best and brightest techies, scientists, entrepreneurs and creatives to the region," they write. "It should focus on recruiting and retaining thousands of retail vendors who currently make the region a part-time home. The area must work harder to build a critical mass of young professionals, singles and those without family."

The stage is set for additional growth due to defining investments that already have been made in institutions such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Momentary, the Arkansas Music Pavilion, the Scott Family Amazeum and the Walton Arts Center.

"It has a thriving restaurant and music scene, an excellent network of bike trails (more than 400 miles of hard and soft surfaces), lakes and open spaces," the report says. "The region's arts, cultural and recreational offerings are comparable to that of a major city or metro area. With strategic investment, northwest Arkansas is primed to offer creative talent a great place to live and do work in a more affordable, healthier environment.

"Further investment in an already-thriving culinary arts scene will be important. For example, northwest Arkansas could link to the local agricultural and protein ecosystem. A number of initial investments have already been made with a new group of award-winning chefs on the scene."

The statewide report from Heartland Forward offered an economic development blueprint for Arkansas. I have to be honest, though. With the lowest overall quality of state legislators in my lifetime and the uncertainty surrounding what kind of governor we'll get after next year's election, I doubt those recommendations will be adopted.

I have no doubt, however, that the regional report for northwest Arkansas will be implemented. Organizations such as the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Walton Family Foundation will see to it. Therein lies the difference between northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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