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Ozark Mountains: Big Business Transforms Land of Hillbillies

6 min read

A half-century ago, the economic landscape of northwest Arkansas was bleak. It lacked the Delta’s rich soil and the industrial base of the state’s centrally located capital.

If the L’il Abner stereotype of Ozark life wasn’t exactly true, it wasn’t exactly false, either.

“Fifty years ago we were the poorest area of state,” said Bill Ramsey, CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce and a former state representative.

The Ozarks did have cheap land, picturesque vistas and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. But graduates looked beyond the ridges of the ancient Ozark Mountains for a “good job.”

Native daughters and sons left in waves for three decades after the onset of the Great Depression. The official population of Benton County grew by exactly 19 between 1920 and 1960.

Then a group of entrepreneurial visionaries — Sam Walton, J.B. Hunt, Don Tyson, John Cooper and others — began laying the groundwork for an economic explosion that would eventually reverberate not only through northwest Arkansas, but the entire financial world.

The economic explosion has had a far-reaching impact on the local people and their self-image and has forced a once-isolated region to embrace outsiders.

Mountain Folk

The Ozarks, which include the Boston Mountains, represent one of five geographical regions in the state, defined loosely by the Arkansas, Black and White rivers. The state’s oldest mountain range, the Ozarks give birth to the White, Mulberry and Buffalo rivers, famous for white-water rapids.

Russell P. Baker, archival manager at the Arkansas History Commission, remembers a time when Arkansas Highway 16 running through the Fayetteville area was dirt and the mountains shaped the man. The idea that the world would beat a path to do business in those hills was, it’s safe to say, unthought.

In 1954, a visionary risk-taker named John A. Cooper Sr. bet on the Ozarks as a place for Americans not to do business. With the establishment of Cherokee Village Development Co. (now Cooper Communities Inc.) he pioneered the field of planned retirement communities and established the mountains of north Arkansas as a retirement destination.

The cheap land and breathtaking Ozarks views were a perfect combination for people who no longer needed to earn a living, and his success in Sharp County was replicated a decade later in Benton County with a retirement community he called Bella Vista — “beautiful view.”

During the same period, other ambitious Arkansans were building world-class companies in several small Ozarks towns — Don Tyson’s Tyson Foods Inc. and Harvey Jones’ Jones Truck Lines in Springdale; Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart Stores Inc. at Bentonville; Bill Simmons’ Simmons Foods Inc. at Siloam Springs; and J.B. Hunt’s self-named trucking company at Lowell.

The unlikely convergence in northwest Arkansas of the right ideas at the right time started an economic wheel turning, slowly at first, but it picked up speed until it was nearly out of control.

Regionalism

By the 1990s, population growth in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area began to outstrip the housing supply and city infrastructure. The MSA’s population grew by 47.5 percent between 1990 and 2000.

And jobs were being created even faster than the population was growing. The unemployment rate has remained well below 3 percent, even during the recession of 2001 and the “jobless recovery” thereafter.

Personal income also grew, with per-capita income up more than 50 percent between the 1990 and 2000, about twice the rate of inflation. Northwest Arkansas became a brisk market for million-dollar houses, luxury cars and SUVs — and golf. The area ranks eighth nationally for private golf holes per capita; Bella Vista alone offers six continuous miles of courses totaling 126 holes.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether the Clampett family’s kinfolk would still advise Jed to move away from there.

About 321,000 people now call the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area home, and that number could double by 2025, according to Katherine A. Deck, an associate director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s Sam M. Walton College of Business.

“It is predicted to grow larger than central Arkansas,” said Uvalde Lindsey, president of Ozark International Consultants. In a 13-county region from Fort Smith to Harrison, “there could be a million people,” he said.

“We’ve been discovered,” said the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce’s Ramsey.

Local civic and business groups began to think in terms of world-class infrastructure in order to keep their economic engine from flooding out.

“We’ve been truly successful in practicing regionalism, and the five major chambers of commerce meet on monthly basis,” Ramsey said.

A perfect example of that regionalism is the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill on the outskirts of Bentonville. Its opening in 1998 immediately drained airline service and revenue from the old Fayetteville airport, but the Fayetteville chamber supported its construction.

“We ran the risk of losing our global companies without the necessary support services,” Ramsey said.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport now offers direct flights to major locations like New York, Houston and Atlanta. And Interstate 540 joins Kansas City on the north and Interstate 40 in the south.

We’re No. 1

The kind of economic development that northwest Arkansas has experienced gets attention.

In 2002, the region placed 23rd among 200 metropolitan areas ranked as “Best Places for Business and Career,” according to Forbes magazine and the Milken Institute. The rankings were based on job growth, stable work environment and earned income, plus activity in critical technologies that foster future growth.

Last year, the Milken Institute placed Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers at the top of its “Best Performing Cities” index.

“Being ranked No. 1 wasn’t only a wake-up call to the world but to ourselves,” Lindsey said. “We need to continue doing what we’re doing but plan for the future. It has to be better.”

The region’s tendency toward Republican politics (which dates back to the hill people’s Unionist leanings during the Civil War) has been magnified with the influx of retirees and corporate executives, and the economic strength of the area has multiplied the region’s political clout.

But the constituents those politicians represent now include a blossoming Hispanic population that was never before part of the hill culture.

Hispanic workers, only 1.4 percent of the population of Benton and Washington counties in 1990, represented 8.5 percent of a much larger population just 10 years later.

In response, Fayetteville recently created a multicultural committee. In Springdale and Rogers, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants with a south-of-the-border flavor are springing up, Ramsey said.

“The group is filling a need and have a good work ethic.”

Same, Only Different

The Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA includes Bentonville, Bella Vista and Siloam Springs. The area has been described as a big city with no downtown, but to the locals, the cities are as distinct as Little Rock and Maumelle.

“Each town has its own character, there’s no question,” said Ed Clifford, president and CEO of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce. “We are Wal-Mart town. Springdale is Tyson. Rogers is retail. Fayetteville is the University of Arkansas and retail.”

Together they make one of the most vibrant economic centers in the country. Al Capp, the creator of L’il Abner and his fellow residents of Dogpatch, would probably find the whole unlikely story to be “amoozin but confoozin.” 

(Additional reporting by Bill Bowden.)

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