“You know we have just a naturally beautiful town, and I think when people come here and just say, ‘You know what? This is where I want to live,’ I attribute that to a great sense of community, and a lot of people with a lot of wisdom working hard to be more customer service driven that have put away the old traditions of how you run government, and deal with it more like a business rather than just small town politics.”
That from Siloam Springs’ young City Administrator, David Cameron , who was hired in 2004. A St. Louis transplant, 40 year-old Cameron says, “The City Board took a very large risk in bringing in a very young individual to lead our city, with no experience in city administration.”
But under Cameron’s direction Siloam Springs has thrived and become one of the most progressive and non-traditional communities in Northwest Arkansas.
Sitting on an Ozark Mountain plateau in the Northwest corner of the state next to the Oklahoma border, the Benton County city’s population has grown more than 40 percent since 2000.
Now with more than 16,000 residents, Siloam Springs has a lot more to brag about.
A year ago, the town welcomed a new 42 bed, $40 million regional hospital that replaced the old city-owned medical center. Now privately owned, ultra-modern Siloam Springs Regional Hospital is designed to serve an estimated 50,000 people throughout the region.
In 2012, US News & World Report ranked Siloam Springs’ school district # 22 in the state. Also last year the city as a whole was named one of the 20 best small towns in America by Smithsonian Magazine.
But one of the pillars of the community is John Brown University. With more than 2,000 students, JBU is a private, interdenominational, Christian liberal arts college that was founded in 1919. It’s academic and campus life has gained national attention. In 2012, JBU received the second best ranking among 107 regional colleges in the South by US News & World Report and No. 1 in 2013 for “Best Value.”
Along with its graduate program, students from more than 40 countries come to Siloam Springs to attend JBU. Both Cameron and his wife finished up their undergraduate degrees from John Brown by attending a special after-hours program for working adults. He says it’s one of the city’s largest employers and because of its influence, Siloam Springs’ median age is 29. But there’s another big reason it’s such a young town.
“Mainly because the John Brown students that graduate are staying here and opening small businesses,” Cameron says.
Besides education, manufacturing and retail trade are the communities’ most common industries. Some notable companies are La-Z-Boy, Gates Corp., DaySpring, Allen Canning and Simmons Foods.
To make the business climate even more progressive and to spur growth, Cameron says the city took a bold step recently and did away with business license fees. Now all that is required to do business in Siloam Springs is to register online at no cost through an automated process.
At the town’s centerpiece is the rejuvenated Historic Downtown District where natural rock walls line the banks of spring-fed Sager Creek as it winds through the heart of town past fountains, under walking bridges and through dogwood groves. Green spaces, along with parks and trails intermingle among boutiques, shops and restaurants in this pristine and now bustling setting. It’s been honored by the Arkansas Historic Preservation program.
Once given up for dead, a strong and determined group of preservationists formed a partnership and began revitalizing the area with major renovations in 2005. One of its lynch-pin leaders and business owners is Shelley Simmons. Simmons is board president of Main Street Siloam Springs, a member of the Main Street Arkansas community.
“Now instead of hearing about people moving away, we have people moving back,” she says. “Having a healthy downtown and a community gathering place is key to economic development.”
Simmons grew up in the Boston, Mass. area and met her husband Todd while they both attended Georgetown. Her husband’s family owns Simmons Foods in town and so they moved to Siloam. She said at first she wanted to leave for Fayetteville where her husband could commute, but is glad they didn’t.
“I’m so grateful we didn’t do that because being here and getting to know the community really helped me to understand what needed to happen, and what was going to spur change,” she says.
Now after helping spearhead that dramatic change, she says every walk through the district puts a smile on her face as does her love for her adopted home.
She says, “You can’t imagine how great life is in Siloam Springs. I think it’s hard for some people in some parts of the country to imagine that there is still that idyllic small town life here in America.”