With Population Growth Not Slowing, 'Hard Choices' Needed Soon in NWA

With Population Growth Not Slowing, 'Hard Choices' Needed Soon in NWA

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the population growth in northwest Arkansas.

The region is anchored by the population strongholds of Benton and Washington counties but also includes rural Madison County. The region has added 100,000 residents in the past decade and the most recent figures put the population at 560,709, which is nearly 5% more than just two years ago when it stood at 534,904.

The stresses and strains — and opportunities — presented by the population growth were discussed at the State of the Northwest Arkansas Region luncheon Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fayetteville.

“People continue to move here,” said Mervin Jebaraj, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business. “I think that is a good thing. That’s something that adds to the vitality of the region, and it adds to our economic growth.”

The region was the first to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic recession in the state, at least from the standpoint of jobs. Since late 2020, after the pandemic caused economic and social upheaval, the state has added 27,000 jobs over pre-pandemic numbers, of which 17,000 were in northwest Arkansas, Jebaraj said.

Jonesboro, Little Rock and Fort Smith have also recovered the job numbers lost during the heat of the pandemic, while Hot Springs and Pine Bluff are still clawing their way back.

Jebaraj said economic news Thursday was good in regards to a possible recession. GDP growth was 2.6% in the third quarter, a reverse after two negative quarters, so Jebaraj predicted the country would remain recession-free for the near future.

The U.S. Federal Reserve, though, plans to continue to raise interest rates in an attempt to stave off inflation, so a recession in 2023 remains a possibility.

The region’s report compared northwest Arkansas to its “peer group,” made up of six other metropolitan statistical areas that include Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; and Provo, Utah. Against those heavyweights, northwest Arkansas held its own in metrics such as population growth and unemployment and poverty rates.

The region ranked low in median household income, the percentage of residents with bachelor’s degree or higher and academic research & development expenditures.

The University of Arkansas had $165.8 million in R&D in 2020, which was more than a 5% decrease from 2018, and ranked the university No. 133 nationally. The university recently began construction on its $194 million Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, which is scheduled to open in 2024.

Nelson Peacock, the CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said key targets for the region are addressing the research and development shortfall and bringing or keeping more bachelor’s degree-earning employees in northwest Arkansas.

“You can see there are many things we are doing really well, and you will see some areas where we need some work,” Peacock said. “Northwest Arkansas is at an inflection point. We still have to address some of our economic shortcomings; we need to aggressively do that to make sure the next 20 years are as good as the last 20 years have been economically.”

One overarching concern most leaders and citizens have with the region’s population growth is housing. Housing prices have ballooned 128% in the last decade, making middle-class home ownership much more difficult.

The region is unique in that four major cities, from Bentonville at the geographic top to Fayetteville at the bottom and all the smaller satellite towns in between, intersect; many residents work in one city and live in another. The sprawl of the growth is another complication of the population-housing dilemma: homes that are more affordable are farther away from work and play areas, making transportation costs problematic.

The keynote speaker at the luncheon was Rick Cole, who is the executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Cole said he had only been in northwest Arkansas for a short while but understood why it was such a growing area.

“This is God’s country,” Cole said. “You have a beautiful landscape. You have some distinctive historical cities. That’s why this place has such a loyalty from people who have lived here and why it is such a magnet for people to come here.”

That said, change is coming, Cole said, either for the better or worse. The leaders of the region need to go into the communities and decide what kind of future northwest Arkansas wants to have.

“A vision has to be a shared vision of the community,” Cole said. “It has to be, what does the community want to be when it grows up?”

Sprawl has been a fact of life for decades, as communities became reliant on home-work-play areas being distinct from each other and connected by cars. That has resulted in fewer walkable, bike-friendly communities and more with “soul-piercingly ugly” roads, Cole said.

Cole said using a form-based zoning code could help raise the quality of life aspect of communities compared to the traditional zoning that segregates by land use. Many younger people prefer to live in walkable communities, which can be done by new zoning ideas and letting developments grow naturally as opposed to having each new development done all at once.

“I didn’t come from California to tell you what to do,” Cole said. “I came here to tell you, you need to make some hard choices, and you need to make them sooner rather than later.”

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