OPINION | REX NELSON: Attracting the talent

Here's the thing I love about brothers Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton: They could live anywhere in the world and do anything they want to do. Their entire focus, however, is on improving life in Arkansas. And that's something for residents of a small state to celebrate.

The Walton brothers appeared last month on a panel with AOL co-founder Steve Case during Gov. Asa Hutchinson's policy forum known as the America Leads summit. The event, held in Bentonville, attracted politicians, business leaders and policy wonks from across the country.

As recently as five years ago, the brothers wondered if there would be enough opportunities in northwest Arkansas to keep them anchored. They've since learned the answer. They now think northwest Arkansas can be the best place to live in the country as long as it learns from mistakes made by other fast-growing areas.

"We don't want to be Austin or Nashville," Tom said. "We want to be the best Bentonville we can be. We will die trying to make this the best place to live, work and play on the planet."

That sounds like a long-term commitment to me.

"We want to help grow and start businesses in the region that solve unmet needs and present opportunities," Steuart said. "We've invested in place-making and the concept of urban living in downtowns along with some aviation ventures. Last year, we invested in a solar energy startup because we see solar as part of the energy independence solution."

Case runs a venture capital firm called Revolution that invests in startups in places such as northwest Arkansas. He pointed out that almost 75 percent of venture capital goes to California, New York and Massachusetts. He's intent on finding good companies in other parts of the country. The Walton brothers are glad to direct him to northwest Arkansas.

"We want Bentonville to compete in the global arena, and we had to look at our pitch," Steuart said. "Here, it's logistics and supply chain. We then had to try to perfect that. We also looked at what makes us unique. . . . We've invested in trails and quality-of-life elements that are also paying big dividends."

Those quality-of-life elements include everything from hiking and biking trails to restaurants and craft breweries. The Walton brothers and Case all made the point that economic development in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century is about attracting and retaining talented people.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of speaking in Rogers to the group known as 40 Under 40. The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal annually selects a class of 40 up-and-coming professionals younger than 40. This year's class consisted of 14 honorees from Fayetteville, eight from Rogers, five from Bentonville, five from Fort Smith, four from Springdale, two from Cave Springs and one each from Tontitown and Gentry.

Only 13 of the 40 are native Arkansans. I was incredibly impressed, though, with their love of and commitment to Arkansas.

Not so long ago, Arkansas was a place to "pass through" for those climbing the career ladder. People transferred to the region to work for a Walmart vendor, put in a few years and then moved on. These days, I'm meeting more and more people younger than 40 who say this is their final stop. They've decided that Arkansas is where they want to raise their families.

That's not to say that business and civic leaders here can become complacent. Developing, attracting and retaining diverse talent is an effort that can never stop. It's something those leaders are focused on, as made clear in the 2022-26 strategic plan released earlier this year by the Northwest Arkansas Council.

Richard Florida's Creative Class Group prepared the report. Florida is an internationally recognized expert on urban affairs.

"Talent is the single most important consideration that drives corporate location decisions and regional prosperity," the report said. "Having a deep base of skilled workers creates a virtuous cycle of business attraction and formation, which brings in still more talent. Up until now, northwest Arkansas has punched above its weight when it comes to talent attraction. But the pandemic and the rise of remote work has tilted the playing field even more in the direction of talent.

"Regions that develop, attract and especially retain talent will gain additional advantages, while those that do not will lose ground. Northwest Arkansas must double down on its existing efforts. Professional workers with families have increased freedom and flexibility to choose where they want to live. Attracting and retaining them should be the region's No. 1 priority. Northwest Arkansas must leverage its amenities and quality of place."

Florida said public schools, colleges and universities, economic development partners and existing businesses must be part of this process. If northwest Arkansas has shown us anything in the past, it has been the ability of such entities to work together for the greater good. The Northwest Arkansas Council serves as the coordinator of such efforts.

"The rise of remote work creates additional opportunities for the region to attract professionals," the report said. "The recent remote work initiative known as Life Works Here, which offered a modest financial incentive along with a bicycle, attracted thousands of applications and brought additional remote workers. It also brought a raft of positive press and helped build national and global brands.

"All that said, northwest Arkansas continues to lose young talent to larger metro areas' bigger and deeper labor, dating and mating markets. Northwest Arkansas has a dire need for talent with 12,000 job openings, including 3,000 in the tech sector. Seven in 10 Northwest Arkansas Council members surveyed said talent attraction and retention is a critical priority. Less than half (45 percent) of northwest Arkansas' college graduates remain in the region, and a large share of those who hail from Texas leave the region upon graduation."

The report called on northwest Arkansas leaders to continue to enhance the quality of life in this part of the Ozarks.

"A key feature of the region, and one that has driven its growth, is its affordable quality of life," it said. "Northwest Arkansas regularly scores in the top five in U.S. News & World Report's annual Best Places to Live survey. It has made defining investments in institutions like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Momentary, Walton Arts Center, Arkansas Music Pavilion, TheatreSquared, Scott Family Amazeum and Museum of Native American History. It has thriving restaurant and music scenes and an excellent network of bike trails.

"The region can do a better job of promoting and marketing these initiatives. ... Focus on specific market segments where the region has competitive advantages, such as families with young children. The region offers an ideal environment to raise children with a variety of high-quality school options, houses with yards, plenty of greenspaces and events and activities that cater to families. Northwest Arkansas can also focus on so-called boomerang talent -- natives of the region who left to pursue their careers and who may consider returning."

Florida noted that a busy arts scene is no longer something that's just "nice to have." It's something demanded these days by well-to-do, educated people.

"Study after study document the ways that arts, music and cultural scenes strengthen talent attraction and retention while building community and quality of place," the report said. "Northwest Arkansas' music ecosystem alone produces $389 million in economic output and is responsible for the creation of about 4,000 jobs."

Northwest Arkansas is far more these days than Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and the University of Arkansas. I came away optimistic following my session with the 40 Under 40 honorees. If they're a proper indication of the region's future, the good times are here to stay.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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