Being a part-time mayor doesn’t work for Ernie Penn in Farmington anymore.
Penn, 65, has served as mayor for 16 of the past 20 years — he did not run for re-election after his first term ended — but he’ll become a full-time city employee in January. The City Council approved a salary of $72,000, and Penn will retire as senior vice president at Arvest Bank after a 42-year banking career.
For Penn and Farmington, it was a necessary move. The growing city just west of Fayetteville has become a 24/7 responsibility.
“With the growth of our city, that job is not a part-time job of 10 hours or 20 hours a week; it’s 40 hours-plus a week,” Penn said. “We had been talking about for three to five years that our city has been growing, and we need to have a full-time mayor.
“We just decided this year we can pay what we need to pay to have a full-time mayor, whether it is me or someone else. My time has come that I needed to make a decision. I love being mayor.”
Farmington isn’t the only small town swept up in the boom of northwest Arkansas.
The region attracts nearly 30 new residents a day, according to estimates from the Northwest Arkansas Council, and a majority of those residents don’t move into one of the four major cities that straddle Interstate 49.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of northwest Arkansas’ population was 537,000 in 2017, a number that includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties in Arkansas and McDonald County in Missouri.
The population was expected to reach 550,000 this year and be up to 600,000 by 2023.
Fayetteville, the largest city in northwest Arkansas’ metropolitan statistical area, had a population of 85,000 in 2017. The populations of Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville push the total to a little more than half of the region’s population.
The rest of those half-million souls are finding homes in previously small, underdeveloped towns such as Farmington and Pea Ridge and Centerton.
Penn said he remembered returning to his hometown 20 years ago and seeing a sign on the city limits that proclaimed Farmington’s population as 1,313. Although the Census estimates Farmington’s population at nearly 6,900 nowadays, Penn believes there are actually more than 8,000 residents.
“I’m going to say we would get to 15,000 fairly soon,” Penn said.
Pea Ridge, northeast of Bentonville, has seen similar explosive growth. Mayor Jackie Crabtree said his town, previously a rural, hard-to-reach place best known for a Civil War battlefield, has become an accessible, attractive and affordable suburb of Rogers and Bentonville in Benton County.
Crabtree said when he took office in 1994, Pea Ridge had a population of 1,600. The population had risen to 4,800 by 2010 and is approaching 6,000 this year.
“We are pretty much a bedroom community,” Crabtree said. “With the improvements they’ve made on Highway 72 and I-49, it makes travel between here and Bentonville so much easier. It used to back up quite a bit. With the upgrades in the school system and people wanting to be in a smaller community with a smaller school system, they are coming our way.”
Centerton, just west of Bentonville, has grown the most, from about 9,500 in 2010 to more than 14,000 this year — nearly 50 percent in less than a decade. The town had fewer than 1,000 residents in 1990.
“When you think of the growth in population here in general, it has actually not just been concentrated in the big cities,” said Mervin Jebaraj, the director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business in Fayetteville. “The population is a lot more spread over the two, three, four counties that make up northwest Arkansas. A lot of the smaller communities are seeing the benefits.”
The blossoming smaller cities have few of the industrial or commercial heavyweights that the big cities have, such as the state’s flagship university in Fayetteville, Tyson Foods Inc. in Springdale and Walmart Inc. in Bentonville. But the employees of those megawatt industries live and pay property taxes and sales taxes in those smaller towns.
The ‘Teeter-Totter Effect’
All those people moving to small towns bring tangible benefits. They buy groceries and gas, or soft drinks at the local fast-food place, and taxes from those sales flow into small-town coffers.
Penn said Farmington hasn’t increased its sales tax rate since he was mayor other than a temporary 1 percent tax to pay off bonds that financed construction of a new sports complex. The city has built a new high school and football stadium and a new performing arts center and will ask voters for another short-term tax increase to expand its Creekside Park.
“Our sales tax growth in the last 10 years has gone up 288 percent,” Penn said. “The main thing is, we have lots of projects going, keeping up with the infrastructure. We’re in good shape with that. We are trying to give our citizens who live out here [amenities] so they don’t have to go to Fayetteville.”
Farmington’s sales tax revenue increased from $888,000 in 2010 to $1.6 million in 2017, and more than $1.1 million had been collected through August of this year, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration. Pea Ridge’s sales tax revenue has bloomed from $359,000 in 2010 to $693,00 in 2017 and was at $477,000 through August.
“It’s the teeter-totter effect, as I call it,” Crabtree said. “You get the people, you get the business; you get the business and you get the people. It works hand in hand with others. People look for where they want to live and then they look for where they want to work. Used to be the other way around.”
Pea Ridge is building a new wastewater treatment plant to handle its population growth.
Farmington’s main attraction all those years ago was the affordability and availability of housing, something that Centerton, Pea Ridge and a host of other small towns likewise enjoyed. As the smaller towns continue to build homes and sell them, the demand is outpacing supply.
In Farmington’s case, Penn believes expansion of Highway 170 to the south will open up new development areas. Prairie Grove, the next town west of Farmington on Highway 62, is catching some of the Farmington overflow.
Crabtree said Pea Ridge has lots of land but some of it is tied up in family farms, befitting the town’s history as a rural outpost.
“We still have some affordable lots and we still have some room to grow,” said Crabtree, whose town is building a new high school. “Of course, part of what you will find is that at some point we have a lot of old families who have had [farm] property here for a long time. It takes a while for them to decide they want to sell.
“We still look for continued growth. We are planning for extended growth, doing the very best we can.”