story by Michael Tilley
Somewhere, somebody at some place is a loaded box closer, a step closer, a state line closer to being the next resident of Northwest Arkansas. That person may be a retail industry veteran about to begin a lucrative job with a supplier to the company Sam and Helen started. Or the person on the move may be a recent college graduate with no plans and no money, but big dreams and a big student loan.
And there’s a chance that come Wednesday (May 28), that person – listening to directions from Garmin while avoiding orange barrels – will be a demographic milestone for Northwest Arkansas.
500,000. Half a million.
Either way, the Northwest Arkansas Council estimates that the pace of migration to the area means the 500,000th resident should arrive on Wednesday. For that person’s sanity, let’s hope the arrival is not around 5 p.m. anywhere near Bella Vista.
The Council uses Census data from 2010 and the 2013 Census estimate to determine that an average of 24 people arrive in the region each day. Based on that math, the socio-economic development organization predicts the metropolitan statistical area (Benton, Madison and Washington counties in Arkansas, and McDonald County, in Missouri) will reach the 500,000 population figure on Wednesday.
The region had a reported population of 347,045 in 2000, and 463,204 in the 2010 Census.
“Over my nine years in Northwest Arkansas, the tremendous growth in amenities and services has turned this region into a place we’re proud to call home,” Doris Davis, a Fayetteville resident and senior marketing manager at Sam’s Club, said in a statement provided by the Council. “I knew I’d have a thriving professional career, and my personal fulfillment has grown with the addition of Crystal Bridges, the Walton Arts Center, Pinnacle Hills Promenade, the Jones Center, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals and so much more. I’m so excited about the future of our region and, clearly, others are as well.”
The Council is having fun with the Wednesday estimate by conducting a social media photo contest. Any Northwest Arkansas resident can tweet a photo of themselves or family members “doing what they love best in Northwest Arkansas” with the hashtag #NWA500K for a chance to win. Participants can share multiple photographs. The contest begins at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, May 28 and ends at 11:59 p.m. Monday, June 9. The winner, who will be selected by a committee, will receive a $500 Walmart gift card and a gift basket of items from Northwest Arkansas. The winner must be a resident of Benton, Madison or Washington counties in Arkansas or McDonald County, Mo.
‘BUMPS US UP ANOTHER GEAR’
The 500,000 milestone is not just a number, according to David Erstine, executive broker with CBRE-Northwest Arkansas. He said being able to market the region as one with 500,000-plus residents will further assist an already dynamic regional economy in attracting new businesses, restaurants and amenities.
“It helps broaden the scope of who would be looking at Northwest Arkansas from a business standpoint, especially from a commercial real estate standpoint and a retailer’s standpoint,” said Erstine, who has more than 10 years in commercial real estate work. “There are certain thresholds that are automatic … to being included on site selection sheets, and this will be one of them.”
Erstine admitted that the region has long had a recruitment advantage over larger metro areas by having Wal-Mart Stores based in Bentonville and the associated thousands of good-paying jobs with the Wal-Mart supplier community. However, he said the 500,000 mark will help bolster the advantage.
“But it (500,000 population mark) definitely strengthens the story. It gets us up a notch. It bumps us up another gear. For any of those groups who have identified 500,000 plus (as a qualifier) … that’s just one more benchmark we’ve met,” he explained.
Erstine said the next metro population benchmark is 750,000, almost the size of central Arkansas’ metro area. The Census estimate for the central Arkansas metro area in 2013 was 724,385, up from 610,518 in 2000.
The Council said the region has 17,000 more jobs than it did in 2000, and saw per capita income increase to nearly $36,000.
More remarkable is the growth in the regional workforce, which is a direct beneficiary of in-migration. The size of the Northwest Arkansas regional workforce during March was estimated at 234,966, up from the 233,960 during February, and above the 231,940 during March 2013, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor figures. June 2013 was the first month the region’s workforce topped 240,000.
The average annual monthly labor size was 234,412 in 2013, 234,792 during 2012, 229,950 during 2011 and 226,593 during 2010. The workforce has grown from an annual average of 123,169 in 1990 to the 234,412 in 2013 – a more than 90% increase in the 23-year period.
By comparison, Arkansas’ workforce grew only 18.08% in the same 23-year period. Also, and this statistic is especially telling, more than 55% of Arkansas’ workforce growth between 1990 and 2013 has come from the Northwest Arkansas metro area.
“It’s been exciting to watch the growth and what it’s meant to the region,” Jeff Schomburger, president of the Global Walmart Team for Procter & Gamble, said in the Council statement. “The quality and diversity of our educational options, from elementary school through high school, are a strong asset when we’re recruiting top P&G talent to our region. As we’ve approached 500,000 residents, the growth, opportunities and quality of life have resulted in Northwest Arkansas being a coveted destination for P&G families to work and live.”
Regional amenities cited by the Council as helping with quality of place include the Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, the Walmart AMP in Rogers and the Razorback Regional Greenway. The Council also noted that the $28.5 million Amazeum – a children’s museum – should open in Bentonville in 2015.