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A Vision for Arkansas (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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If you read only one thing in this issue of Arkansas Business — besides Whispers, of course — skip this column and read Kyle Massey’s feature on Tom Dees, the man who believed in Holiday Island when no one else did. It’s the latest offering in our Fifth Monday series, a periodic excuse to look back on some facet of business in Arkansas, and this story was entirely new to me.

Well, almost entirely. Fifty years ago, Holiday Island was envisioned as a retirement community similar to those pioneered in the 1950s and ‘60s by John Cooper Sr. — Cherokee Village, Bella Vista, Hot Springs Village. And I knew about Cooper, although his story was unfamiliar to me, too, when I became editor of this publication 22 years ago.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about my line of work is getting paid to learn stuff, and I learned about Cooper and his vision of Arkansas as a retirement haven when I was editing the 20th anniversary edition of Arkansas Business in 2004.

Cooper’s idea, as described in an article about the transformation of northwest Arkansas from the most impoverished to the most prosperous region of the state, seems so obvious now: “Cheap land and breathtaking Ozarks views were a perfect combination for people who no longer needed to earn a living …”

But it wasn’t obvious when he made his bet on Cherokee Village in 1954. It may be apocryphal, but a local supposedly said, “The only man crazier than the damn fool who started this thing is the damn fool who pays $500 for a piece of property that won’t grow peas.”

Time and technology march on, and the same things that made Arkansas attractive to 20th century retirees can, in theory, make Arkansas attractive to 21st century workers who are now, as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, much more comfortable with the idea of working remotely. Earlier this month, we reported on the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Life Works Here program, which is recruiting residents to that already-booming region by providing a $10,000 incentive for workers in STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) who are already working remotely.

Other parts of the state could — again, in theory — do something similar to pitch affordability and quality of life to folks who are frustrated with the crushing cost of housing in other parts of the country. But other parts of the state have not had the money — mostly private, mostly from the vast Walton fortune — to create the attractions that northwest Arkansas has been adding for decades. (Notable: Little Rock is investing $142 million, a combination of public and private money, in the stunning transformation of the Arkansas Arts Center into the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.)

Plus, our Legislature came to Little Rock this year with what appeared to be a pent-up desire to make sure the rest of the country knows that Arkansas is a place welcoming only to people who share what currently passes for conservative thought. (Don’t get me started.)

And despite 20 years of hand-wringing, Arkansas remains a digitally divided state (even within the metropolitan areas). Broadband is more important than anything else if we are to compete for those folks looking for an affordable place to put down roots.

California experienced its first decline in population last year since, well, since it became a state in 1850. A median single-family home price of $750,000 will do that. But it’s perhaps advisable to keep in mind that California’s population still grew by 6.5% between the 2010 and 2020 Census counts. New York’s statewide population grew by 4.2% — a surprise to demographers who thought it had lost residents. The national growth rate was 7.4%.

And the number of Arkansans grew by 3.3%, thanks to the attractions of northwest Arkansas. More than half of our 75 counties lost population, and the number of people who left California last year alone — 182,000 — is twice the number added to Arkansas’ population in the past decade.

Last week in his daily e-newsletter, J.V. Last, editor of the political commentary website The Bulwark, called attention to an article about Crater of Diamonds State Park published earlier this month by Afar travel magazine.

But he couldn’t do it without taking a swipe: “A state park where you can dig for diamonds? And the only catch is that it’s in Arkansas?”

There are things about my native state that I’m not proud of, but our state parks are not one of them.

Another little nugget from that 2004 article: “The official population of Benton County grew by exactly 19 between 1920 and 1960.”

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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