Business leaders in Northwest Arkansas raised the bar for regional growth and economic performance expectations over the next three years, according to data shared at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s annual winter meeting held in Rogers on Tuesday (Jan. 27).
Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the lofty goals set for the next three years are an important layer to the groundwork the region has accomplished since 2011 when the first strategic plan was announced. (Link here for a copy of the new plan.)
Northwest Arkansas completed the five-year plan in just four years but there’s no time to rest as the region has now set its sights on competing with the larger metro areas of Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisc. Ted Abernathy, president of Economic Leadership LLC., and the consultant for the regional plan, said competitiveness is a journey rather than a destination.
Abernathy was the keynote speaker at the meeting. He shared the “Area Development Rankings” for Northwest Arkansas which far outpaced peer cities that were outlined in the last plan period 2011-2014.
Overall rankings of 379 metro areas
Kansas City 148
Kansas City 174
Kansas City 176
In the past four years Northwest Arkansas grew its population by 7.5% to 505,000. Employment is up 9.3% since 2010 and average wages grew 9.7% since 2009. Unemployment fell to 3.9%, and the regional gross domestic product increased to $28 billion, up 29.8% since 2009. The stellar economic performance led much of the nation and was twice the national GDP for the same period.
Northwest Arkansas also increased the number of people 25 or older how have a bachelor’s degree from 21.5% in 2010 to 27.9% in 2013. Add in the quality of life investments in trails and the additional Interstate highway miles and the region was able to check all the boxes in its former plan.
“The five-year plan was an incredible win for the region,” Abernathy said.
Looking ahead, he said outpacing the benchmark peer cities over the next three years represent a big challenge – even for a successful region like Northwest Arkansas. When compared to its new peers Northwest Arkansas is an underdog of sorts.
Overall rankings of 379 metro areas
Madison, Wisc. 45
Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 55
Madison, Wisc. 2
Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 43
Madison, Wisc. 130
Raleigh-Durham, N.C. 102
Abernathy said the biggest challenge for economic developers across the country today is qualified workforce shortages. Northwest Arkansas is not immune. The region is working with local school districts like Springdale to get me more workers in the pipeline sooner by offering skills and workforce training to high school students.
The new plan calls for work with high schools to expand and be adopted across the region. Abernathy said the region must continue to develop a pipeline of workers and continue to retract and retain other talent. He said in a perfect world every high school graduate would have had a work experience.
Malone said workforce shortages are a challenge going forward, not just in skilled manufacturing but also technology and medical professions.
“There’s a lot of good work already being done. We need to transfer that on a broader scale and there is a communication opportunity to let people know what is working well so that it can be adopted elsewhere,” Malone said. “The shortage of available workforce at our low unemployment levels is an area of vulnerability for this region going forward.”
‘LET’S ALL GET MOVING’
The Council also plans to work on a 25-year look at infrastructure needs such as highways, added multi-modal mobility, preservation of the region’s drinking water as well as pricing improvement and options for the regional airport. Thirdly, the new plan seeks to promote itself as a region to attract targeted job opportunities.
Abernathy said the region has to think like a metro area if its going to compete at a higher benchmark. But he also said it’s vitally important that individual towns continue to invest and redevelop their own downtowns.
“Downtown is what attracts young people to a region. … We are becoming a downtown nation,” he said.
Abernathy said the regional council has got to develop its next class of leadership as he starred out upon the mostly gray-haired membership. The plans calls for promoting citizen engagement on boards, elected positions and leadership training. The group also seeks to promote racial and cultural ethnic diversity by supporting quality of life enhancements that appeal to a variety of demographic groups.
Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Sam’s Club, also serves as co-chair of the Council board of directors. She told the group she embraced the shorter plan and while the region is already outpacing Santa Rosa Calif., and Lexington, Ky., there is plenty of work to get the region into the top 100 performing metro areas.
Susan Barrett, president of Mercy Health System, told the membership that the region has come such a long way in four years because they had a strategic plan from which to work. Without this plan, Barrett said the region would not have known it needed a task force to call on local businesses to retain and and help them with expansion, a plan that has been successful in protecting the local job base. She also attributes many of the downtown strategies to the ongoing work that came from the plan the group followed for the past four years.
Malone said this new plan is more narrow and a deeper dive on just a few of the items where there is the most need.
“We don’t have to recreate the wheel here. We just need to draft more organizations to the cause to help pull off these goals which will be reviewed in just 1,068 days. Let’s all get moving,” Malone said.
The Northwest Arkansas Council will celebrate its 25th anniversary at its next meeting scheduled for July 20.