Northwest Arkansas mayors give state of the region address

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 99 views 

Necessary but often frustrating road work, significant investments in downtown areas, important quality of life improvements and workforce training are essential elements of the ongoing transformation of Northwest Arkansas, according to area mayors.

Mayors Bob McCaslin of Bentonville, Greg Hines of Rogers and Doug Sprouse of Springdale were part of a panel discussion at The Summit Luncheon at Cross Church on Thursday (Oct. 2). The panel was moderated by Andy Wilson, program director for the church and a retired Wal-Mart exec.

Also attending was Dick Trammel, a banker with Arvest in Northwest Arkansas and a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission. Trammel said the price of progress among the nearly 30 major road projects across Benton and Washington counties is more than $698 million and the work is expected to continue until 2019. Trammel said the orange barrels are a sign “things will get better.” But he added, “it won’t be anytime soon.”

The much-needed widening of the Interstate 49 corridor that links the region together and to the rest of the state and country entails 25 different projects slated through 2017 for a total price tag of $605 million. Trammel said four of those have been completed at a cost of $40 million and there are seven more underway now with at a cost of $110 million. The biggest expense is yet to come, as 14 more future projects carry an estimated price tag of $455 million.

The $605 million being spent along I-49 in the two counties is broken down as follows:
• Bella Vista Bypass: 14.5 miles of new construction which is complete on the Arkansas side at a cost of $150 million.

• The U.S. 412 Bypass: 4.5 miles of new road construction from I-49 in north Springdale toward Northwest Regional Airport back around to Hwy. 412 out near Tontitown. This project is one of the last to begin around 2017 at a cost of $125 million.

• I-49 widening along 26 miles from Fayetteville to North Bentonville. The cost of this work is $200 million with a expected completion date of 2017.

• I-49 interchange work which is ongoing is expected to cost $130 million and take three more years to complete.

Trammel said there are four other large road projects in the region already underway that are not part of the I-49 work, but notable. Those are the Highway 62 Prairie Grove Bypass at $16 million; Highway 62 widening from Avoca to Garfield costing $24 million; Highway 102 through Centerton of which $5 million of work is complete and $15 million more is committed; and the widening of Highway 265 from North Fayetteville through Springdale that has a price tag of $25 million.

The cities along the I-49 corridor have also anted-up millions of their own from the Fayetteville Flyover to Don Tyson Parkway in Springdale to the $53 million 8th Street interchange coming to Bentonville by 2016.

None of the major cities in Northwest Arkansas have their downtown areas near the I-49 corridor, but they have all committed to investing and revitalizing their downtown areas.

McCaslin said Bentonville’s effort to rejuvenate its downtown began in February 2008 as an all-out effort to spruce up the square. The project was completed by April.

“This was a catalyst for investment that continues today. It was perhaps the most important work we did that has had the biggest impact. It doesn’t hurt to host the world’s largest public company and the gift by Alice Walton (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) is immeasurable, but the other public and private investments in our downtown area have also been huge,” McCaslin said.

He adds that property values near the downtown square have doubled and more since 2008.

“It’s a hopping place to be,” McCaslin said.

He said city residents approved more than $100 million in bonds back in 2007, most of which was spent on streets ($85 million). He said $15 million was spent on parks with police and fire each getting $5 million. The downtown rejuvenation project also was funded with that money as is the city’s part of the $53 million 8th Street widening from Walton Boulevard to a new interchange at I-49.

Rogers Mayor Greg Hines said the $15 million spent on improvements to Lake Atalanta and a 100-acre park near downtown and another $30 million shifted toward other downtown projects out of bond revenue funding is starting to bear fruit.

“I am proud to say that I too, am personally investing in our downtown. I have sold my home and purchased a lot in the historic district to build a home there. My parents have sold their home in Pinnacle Country and are also relocating downtown. Not a month goes by that we don’t actively show our downtown to investor groups wanting to redevelop downtown residential properties,” Hines said.

Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse joked that two years ago Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan phoned him about paid parking downtown, which was a brewing controversy in Fayetteville.

“I told him that the only time paid parking would be a topic in downtown Springdale was if we agreed to pay someone to park there. That’s were Springdale was just two years ago. But lately we are riding a wave of good news and our downtown vision is taking shape,” Sprouse said.

He said the city is working on Turnbow Plaza and the downtown park area and Spring Creek will soon be uncapped to allow the creek to run through the park along the Razorback Greenway.

“We are just at the beginning edge of our downtown rejuvenation projects but investment is already flowing in,” Sprouse said.

The Walton Family and Tyson Foods have recently purchased downtown Springdale property as well as another investor group lead by Phillip Taldo who bought the Apollo Theater for $50,000.

Sprouse said quality of life is just as important toward spurring economic development as road work. He admits that Springdale has been behind the curve in past years with regard to its parks and trail systems, but they are working diligently to catch-up.

Earlier this week Springdale celebrated a major park expansion with the purchase of 43 acres and the Rabbit’s Foot Lodge near J.B. Hunt Park, which gives the city 175 acres of park around Lake Springdale. 

“I have known Karen Morton for years and she has owned the property since 1983. Over the past few years she has donated a few parcels to the city for the Greenway project and we thought owning the entire acreage and lodge that could join up with J.B. Hunt Park near Lake Springdale could be a great investment for the city. This 175-acre park, lodge and lake now sit almost exactly at the half-way point along the 36-mile Razorback Greenway,” Sprouse said.

He said Johnelle Hunt graciously contributed $500,000 toward the $1.05 million purchase price of the property.

“When I took this to the city council back in April with Mrs. Hunt’s offer it was a no-brainer for us to buy it,” he said. “We have several groups looking at the 3,000 square-foot lodge for possible educational uses in the natural setting.”

McCaslin said Bentonville and the region for that matter is a poster child for “diversity.”

“We have some 60 different ethnic groups that have come to live and work in the two-county region. … While we also are known as ground zero for growing startups through capitalism in the free market, that does us no good if we can’t create a place where people want to live and invest,” McCaslin said.

He said the Bentonville Community Center which is slated to open next summer is an example of a quality of life investment by the city. The cost of this new recreation center is $16 million.

The Amazeum children’s discovery center will also open next summer in Bentonville, thanks to a private investment of $28.5 million. He said it’s a treasure for entire region.

Hines said the Walmart AMP – another effort made possible by Johnelle Hunt – is having a positive impact on Benton County, particularly Rogers and is partially responsible for steady growth in sales tax revenue since it opened in June.

“What a great gift to Benton County. It’s something we have needed for some time to draw top entertainment to the area, that previously only Fayetteville could host,” Hines said.

All three mayors addressed education and the importance it will have on the region tomorrow. McCaslin said as good as Northwest Arkansas is at educating its youth, the perception by the outside world is still low.

“Maybe that’s because Arkansas with 2.9 million people is largely a rural state. It’s true that one in seven teenagers in Arkansas drop out of high school today and rely on some type of government aid. Until we change that, the perception of education in Arkansas will not improve,” McCaslin said.

He credits the success in Northwest Arkansas’ educational sector to an acceptance for charter schools and unique public school programs that challenge students from an early age.

Hines said the city of Rogers and its high schools share athletic facilities as with Veteran’s Park and this allows the school to put more money into classroom endeavors. He said the new Math and Science High School in Rogers and the Arts Academy, formerly Benton County School of the Arts, are examples of educational alternatives that prepare students for professions in specialized areas.

“If our schools don’t succeed then there is no hope for our cities,” said Spouse. 

Sprouse said it will require charter schools, high school vocational programs, junior colleges and technical trade schools to help train the next generation of skilled workers. Too many times he said companies look at this region and can’t find the necessary skilled workforce to locate here.

“Workforce training has got to be part of the solution and I know all the cities here and the Northwest Arkansas Council are working on this effort,” Sprouse said.