The Northwest Arkansas Council believes central Arkansas has the foundation needed to thrive and attract new residents, Marshall Saviers, president of Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners and presiding chair of the council, said at a Rotary Club of Little Rock meeting on Tuesday.
Saviers and Nelson Peacock, CEO of the council, discussed northwest Arkansas’ active development and how other areas of the state can mimic its successful methodology.
The council was started in the early 1990s by Sam Walton. The late founder of Walmart Inc. of Bentonville “called to action” other successful business leaders in the area to form the council with the intent to advance the quality of life in northwest Arkansas. These leaders included Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt.
Since its establishment, the council accelerated the growth of northwest Arkansas in multiple areas, including development of Northwest Arkansas National Airport and the Bella Vista bypass, which was completed in 2021 after decades of work. The council’s dedication to grow “work and economic development, workforce development and quality of life” led to the organization’s focus on three major elements: accessible health care, workforce housing and a strong diversity program.
For those elements to carry weight, the council decided to make their developmental strategies available to the public.
“We made it public because we were losing a billion dollars a year from the economy due to out-migration,” Peacock said. “So people were leaving northwest Arkansas and going to Tulsa or Houston or Austin to get their health care. That got everyone’s attention.”
Along with the establishment of the Northwest Arkansas Council, Peacock also credits the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for the region’s growth. The university’s growing investment in research and development — at the urging of the council and other stakeholders — has attracted new talent to the region. Peacock ultimately sees students, researchers and others tied to the university becoming “integrated into the business community.”
The Northwest Arkansas Council credits its Life Works Here marketing and worker recruitment initiative for its accelerated growth.
“Life Works Here was an effort … to market northwest Arkansas,” Peacock said. “‘A good place for work, a good place to live,’” referencing a one-minute advert marketing northwest Arkansas perks and resources, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Museum in Bentonville.
Peacock said that before the implementation of the initiative, a study showed that only 30% of young workers around the nation had heard of any cities in northwest Arkansas. Little Rock was recognized by 75%. The initiative’s goal was to increase northwest Arkansas recognition globally through a two-fold process: a marketing campaign and an incentive program.
The marketing campaign “targeted cities where our major employees were already recruiting,” Peacock said, such as Dallas, Austin and Minneapolis. “We thought that people would appreciate the [northwest Arkansas] lifestyle, the quality of life, and started targeting them digitally.”
The next step of the program incentivized potential employees to move to northwest Arkansas by offering $10,000 and a bike, resulting in over 66,000 applicants from across the globe, and more importantly, Peacock said, “all of the earned media that we got.”
“Through the course of that, we moved awareness from 30% awareness … up to 65%,” said Peacock. “You need to use those to fill niche markets or niche types of workers, and you need to do that to help build your brand.”
In order for central Arkansas to replicate the boom in northwest Arkansas, Peacock says regionalism is the best approach. Jealousy between cities is common, he said, but you have to move past that to achieve progress.
“Regionalism isn’t easy,” he said.
Peacock said that the best way to start this process is to have business leaders from across the region come together, put their money into research and choose one or two areas that need improvement and build from there.
“It will be hard for city council members or mayors in any of these communities to say no to something if everyone stands together in a business community that stands together and says, ‘this is what it takes to grow our region, to make it a better place.’”
Peacock also said that to promote growth, the focus must not be “Little Rock-centric.” Focusing on revitalizing other areas in central Arkansas is vital for this era of growth to continue.
“[Other cities] believe that if they aren’t at the table, then they’re gonna miss out,” Peacock said, “So, [inclusion] keeps them coming back.”
Little Rock already seems to have taken a page from northwest Arkansas’ playbook. The Little Rock Regional Chamber last month launched a similar program to Life Works Here, called the Little Rock Love Connection, to promote growth. It offers former residents and out-of-state workers a custom job match with a local company, and a $10,000 cash incentive to relocate to the area.