Regional political, business and civic leaders in Benton and Washington counties appear to speak the same language with respect to socio-economic development. It’s silly to think they read from the same development manual, but if so, the title would be “Planning Ahead.” The subtitle: “We’re not comfortable with success.”
This is not to say all is well in the region. Poverty, and the associated child welfare problems poverty creates, remains a problem in a region with some of the highest incomes in the state – if not nation and world. Rapid population growth continues to stress the K-12 and higher education system in the region. Expect some hurt feelings – if not worse – when the Walton Arts Center becomes more of a Benton County operation. Primary elections in the region may see a more pronounced and bitter divide between church Republicans and business Republicans.
Also, there will continue to be growth-related problems – subdivisions approaching rock quarries; the search for adequate and affordable landfill space; zoning changes that push commercial space into residential buffer zones; disagreements over regional transit funding; etc.
We believe those issues are not likely to stifle the infrastructure growth or inhibit organizational coalitions required for the region to build layer of success upon layer of success.
The Northwest Arkansas region is indeed an economic success. In October, the region was one of the 41 of the nation’s 372 metro areas to post a jobless rate below 5%. The regional housing market, which took a huge hit beginning about five years ago, is showing signs of stable recovery – although the banking sector still has some black and blue spots from the hit.
Northwest Arkansas’ labor market continues to trend upward. The average annual monthly labor size was 231,461 during 2011, 227,938 during 2010 and 225,177 during 2009. Employment in the region’s tourism sector set a new employment record (20,800 jobs) in June.
Not only is it easy to point to Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and the University of Arkansas as the collective driver of efforts to build upon Northwest Arkansas’ success, it’s also wrong. Sure, they are the major players, but they could also be “The Sirens” which lure the region into an economic dead end (Think here of cities and metro areas that continued to rely on manufacturing jobs until the last plant closed its doors.).
One of the key groups working to avoid assuming long-term comfort based on present-day reality is the Northwest Arkansas Council. The group has done much to encourage regional mayors, county judges and other leaders to think several decades ahead.
Ask a Northwest Arkansas mayor about their city infrastructure plan and you’re likely to be educated on how their projects tie to larger regional efforts. The municipal selflessness is more encouraging than surprising.
This effort also includes cultural leadership. Not only are officials at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville conducting deep self-critiques to build upon their first-year success, but someone or some group in the large cities of Northwest Arkansas have or are working to best benefit from the hundreds of thousands of visitors the museum attracts.
Possibly the most impressive work to Plan Ahead and Not Be Comfortable With Success is in the area of fostering entrepreneurship. There is the ARK Challenge, the Northwest Arkansas Entrepreneurship Alliance (Startup Crawl), The Iceberg, programs through John Brown University and the vast number of entrepreneurial programs supported by the University of Arkansas – just to name a few examples and at great risk of not mentioning several deserving efforts.
Jeff Amerine, an entrepreneur and UA adjunct professor, has said the “Idea Movement” happening in the region is being noticed well outside the region. Fast Company magazine ranked Northwest Arkansas one of 10 “hotbeds of innovation” in the nation. Amerine said Entrepreneur online tagged Northwest Arkansas as one of nine “unexpected emerging areas for start-ups.” The Kauffman Foundation ranks Arkansas No. 15 for entrepreneurship.
Amerine recently said the region is at the leading edge of “a really interesting movement in the state and we have all the right ingredients here at work.”
Why the broad and intense focus on entrepreneurship? Maybe it’s to complete the circle; to keep moving with the bootstrap behavior that brought the region to the dance. Sam Walton, John Tyson and his son Don, and Johnelle and J.B. Hunt were at one time entrepreneurs with big ideas and little money. They discovered a niche, planned ahead, built relationships, planned ahead, expanded the niche, deepened relationships, planned ahead and ended their portion of the cycle with multi-billion dollar operations.
In a world where business, political and other civic leaders don’t work together enough, it’s nice to see a more than transparent effort among disparate regional groups to plan ahead and eschew the comforts of a strong regional economy.