Influx of Workers Transforms Northwest Arkansas

by Todd Traub  on Monday, Jul. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

Ironically, the presence of bargain-priced Wal-Mart in northwest Arkansas supercharged population growth and the development of decidedly upscale shopping destinations like Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers.

Northwest Arkansas as we know it has been shaped — deliberately and accidentally, for the better and for the worse — by the presence of Wal-Mart.

From highways to airports, from homes to banks, from dining to the arts, the Wal-Mart presence is felt mightily in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Statistical Area anchored by the three cities plus Wal-Mart’s home in Bentonville.

Ed Clifford, the president and CEO of the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, worked 17 years at Wal-Mart before assuming his current post in 2001. He has seen not only the company’s growth and its impact on the region firsthand, but also how the region has evolved to accommodate that growth.

“When I came here in 1984 there were about 6,000 people,” Clifford said of the Wal-Mart workforce in Bentonville. “There were about 400 people in the office. We had stores in six states. So today we have about 29,000 Wal-Mart associates in the area.” In addition, he said, Wal-Mart has stores throughout the world, and “we have people living here from all over the world.”

Independent architect Collins Haynes was involved in much of the construction that created 4.5 million SF of new office space from 1990-2010.

“The housing market was one of the biggest areas that was impacted,” Haynes said.

“Also retail. There wasn’t any retail here. If you wanted to buy anything you went to the mall in Fayetteville or you went to Tulsa.”

Haynes said the building boom, which also included homes for relocating employees and executives, could be traced to Wal-Mart decisions to deal directly with companies supplying its goods and to expand into the grocery business.

Those decisions meant companies needed representatives in northwest Arkansas, and those representatives needed places to live, work and shop.

“I’d say out of 10 people, nine of them will be non-native,” Haynes said. “And they will be people who have moved here either because of Wal-Mart or because of the economy here or a job here or vendor relocation or whatever.”

The four primary industries in the northwest area include department and other general merchandise stores, accommodation and food services, health care and educational services. The northwest is also home to such other major employers as Tyson Foods Inc., J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the University of Arkansas, but the region’s largest industry is general merchandise, and that means Wal-Mart.

“I don’t even know how to explain to people,” Clifford said. “But without the four anchor industries that we have we would still be growing apples and maybe a few chickens, but not too many. All of it goes to mesh together.”



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