The Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area passed Austin, Texas, to claim the No. 4 spot in the U.S. News & World Report's annual "Best Places to Live" survey released today.
The region rose four spots while Austin fell two places, to fifth, in the rankings of the nation's top 150 metropolitan statistical areas. The top three were Boulder, Colo.; Raleigh and Durham, N.C.; and Huntsville, Ala.
The U.S. News rankings refer to metropolitan statistical areas as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Fayetteville statistical area includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties.
"I'm giddy," said Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce President Steve Clark.
Clark credited Alice Walton, the leading patron of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; community efforts to develop the Northwest Arkansas Greenway; and other quality-of-life improvements for changing the reality and the image of Northwest Arkansas.
The former state attorney general added that seeing a part of Arkansas surpassing the trend-setting town of Austin as a "cooler" place to live is a landmark event for the entire state.
"You can't buy enough advertising to create a perception like that," Clark said.
Rounding out the top 10 are Colorado Springs, Colo.; Naples, Fla.; Portland, Maine; Sarasota, Fla., and Portland, Ore.
The Little Rock metro area also made the list, coming in at No. 93. No other metro area in Arkansas was ranked. Other Arkansas metro areas are Fort Smith, Hot Springs, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff and Texarkana. Portions of northeast Arkansas fall in the Memphis metro area, which ranked 143rd.
Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted metro Little Rock's "livability, education and thriving economy" as factors contributing to its 2021 ranking.
"Recent major investments in the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and Robinson Center Performance Hall continue to draw national recognition while attracting new visitors and residents to the capital city," Chesshir said in an email. "When combined with world-class healthcare, major corporate headquarters facilities and nationally-awarded FIS FinTech and ICBA ThinkTECH accelerators, Little Rock continues to lead the way in innovation and industry growth."
The report factors in local job markets, quality of life and the number of people moving into and out of an area. The quality-of-life measure considers crime rates, availability of health care, local quality of education and commuting time.
U.S. News also surveyed 3,600 people throughout the United States to find out what qualities they consider important in a place to live. The report uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI, health care surveys and ratings, and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as U.S. News' rankings of the best high schools and hospitals.
The Northwest Arkansas region held its ground in this year's rankings while other metro areas fell after being ranked higher than Fayetteville a year ago. Colorado Springs fell from fourth to sixth place, and Denver plummeted 12 places, from second to 14th.
The Northwest Arkansas Council, a group of area business and civic leaders, has compared the region to Austin and four other "peer" regions since at least 2002 to try to emulate their success, previous reports by the council show. The other regions are Madison, Wis.; Raleigh, N.C.; Provo, Utah; and Des Moines, Iowa.
"Northwest Arkansas continues to be recognized as one of the top places to live in the country due to its incredible job opportunities, low cost of living and world-class quality-of-life amenities," said Nelson Peacock, president and chief executive of the Northwest Arkansas Council. "In order to maintain this success, we must continue to invest in education, workforce development and infrastructure, and ensure there is adequate and affordable housing for our growing workforce. Most importantly, we must do everything we can to keep our community a place where all are welcome and included."
The higher rating in the U.S. News rankings is good news, but Northwest Arkansans also should note the causes of other areas slipping, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Higher housing prices and longer commute times factored into Austin's relative decline in the ratings. Northwest Arkansas also faces rising housing costs and longer commute times, he said. Austin is simply further down the same path, he said.
"No one is going to look at Austin as a cautionary tale, but they had a chance to address the housing problems and made the wrong decisions," Jebaraj said. "We still have a chance to avoid that."
People in Northwest Arkansas' larger cities already pay more to live and commute, as a percentage of their incomes, than do residents in New York City or Chicago, according to an index formulated by the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.
The Walton Family Foundation, a Bentonville-based nonprofit group, partnered with the Northwest Arkansas Council in March to create a workforce housing center to address the housing-cost issue.
"When you look at the underlying data in the rankings, you can see that affordability is why some of these cities fell in the rankings, and that's an issue we need to pay attention to," said Emma Pengelly, interim home region program director of the Walton Family Foundation.
Housing affordability has definitely drawn the attention of Northwest Arkansas' leaders and elected officials, she said.
An encouraging trend is how more businesses, not just people, are moving into the region, Pengelly said. Smaller businesses moved to Northwest Arkansas even during the pandemic, showing a strong economy and "vibrancy," she said. She also said this year's U.S. News rankings seemed to show smaller communities higher up.
Fayetteville and Little Rock now rank above San Diego and Honolulu. San Diego fell from No. 45 to 97, while Honolulu dropped 42 spots, to number 113. San Diego's fall was "largely due in part to its average monthly unemployment rate for 2020 reaching 9.28%," U.S. News said in a news release accompanying the report.
"Cities with metro areas with tourism and hospitality at the forefront of their economic base also fell in the rankings," U.S. News said.
It noted that Las Vegas, which had a monthly average unemployment rate of about 15%, dropped 50 spots to 137. Honolulu had a monthly average unemployment rate of 10.31%. The pandemic severely hurt the tourism industry, national figures show.
"It shouldn't be a surprise that many metro areas that saw unemployment levels skyrocket in 2020 fell in the rankings, but those with greater employment stability tended to fare well," said Devon Thorsby, real estate editor at U.S. News.
Raleigh-Durham ranked below Fayetteville in last year's survey but moved up from 11th place to second on the strength of its job market and other scores, though its quality-of-life score slightly dropped, the report summary said.
Likewise, Huntsville ranked below Fayetteville last year but rose 12 places this year. Raleigh-Durham and Huntsville benefited from the stability of the research, academic and aerospace engineering sectors, the report said. Huntsville also ranked first in the report's "most affordable places" list.
A faster pace in the rising cost of living and in housing prices in particular hurt Austin, Colorado Springs and Denver -- all cities that Fayetteville passed in the ratings.
"Housing affordability is always of great concern, but as people solidify their plans to work remotely, struggle to find a house in a hot housing market or consider a cross-country move, a low cost of living is even more important," Thorsby said.