Three themes were prominent in a discussion at Friday’s (Oct. 30) Northwest Arkansas Emerging Leaders meeting with Mike Malone, president and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council: transit, entertainment, and making connections.
Malone met with members of Emerging Leaders to discuss Northwest Arkansas’ economic status and challenges ahead. Then the meeting attendees broke into groups to discuss what they see as Northwest Arkansas’ greatest opportunities for change and how members and others like them could be a part of making those opportunities come to fruition. The three most common ideas from the groups were transit, entertainment and being able to make connections.
Transit issues are in the process of research, Malone said, with hopes that bus service can be expanded in Northwest Arkansas. Expanding bus service is more feasible than creating a rail system, with transit an issue that must be addressed for Northwest Arkansas to grow, he said.
Entertainment in the form of venues, food and the arts and music scene are another vital part of recruiting and retaining young people to Northwest Arkansas, several groups agreed during the discussion. Northwest Arkansas is already growing in this area with more venues being constructed, expanded, or considered, and with the growth of the culinary arts. One group suggested that we invest in educating people in various aspects of the entertainment industry, which would create more opportunities and trained personnel to fill jobs in the industry.
The third theme, connections, included ideas of developing an app that would connect people to everything going on in Northwest Arkansas. Another member reported that such an app is in the plans.
Another common theme both in the group discussions and Malone’s presentation was battling a continuing false and even negative image that others have about Northwest Arkansas and the South in general.
“This is probably one of our biggest challenge,” Malone said, adding that headhunters often report that potential job candidates become uninterested in a job when they learn it is in Arkansas.
One way to battle misconceptions about the region is the NWA Ambassadors program, which invites local residents to share positive messages about the region.
Malone shared what he and the Council have determined to be the top seven challenges facing Northwest Arkansas and what is being done to address those concerns. Aside from the misconception, the other six are:
• Workforce shortages caused by high employment levels
One would think having a low unemployment rate (down to 3.5% according to recent reports) is a good thing, but that that also means current and incoming businesses have a smaller pool from which to hire.
Malone said they are working to construct a demand-driven system that better aligns training programs with employer needs with targeted initiatives in skilled trades, IT and healthcare.
“We’re going to miss out on growth if we don’t take care of this problem,” he said.
• Difficulty in recruiting executive and creative talent
The best way to combat this concern is to add quality of life amenities such as the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Razorback Greenway, the Walmart AMP, and private high schools, Malone said. The area’s low cost of living compared to other large metro areas should also be heavily emphasized, he said. Northwest Arkansas MSA is estimated at 511,000 thousand with about 25 net people moving into the region every day since 1990.
While several in the discussion agreed the cost of living here is low, they also said that the cost of transportation and the lack of a transit system should be evaluated against the low cost of housing.
• Improving retention in the workforce
It’s one thing to recruit good employees but it’s another thing to be able to keep them. Malone said the Council is partnering with organizations such as EmergeNWA. According to the organization’s website, their purpose is to: “to help newcomers and all constituents of our regional community work together to broaden their integration and engagement and to strengthen our regional economy by positioning our Northwest Arkansas region as a Community of Engaged Global Talent.”
It’s also important to grow diversity, an area in which Northwest Arkansas has made good progress, Malone said. NWA is 10th in the nation for the highest share of its workforce being made up of the Millennial generation and its growing in other forms of diversity, including race.
Having a more diverse workforce is good for the quality of life and the community, and is better for business because it allows companies to better understand the needs of their customer base, Malone said.
• Growth-related infrastructure needs
Anyone who drives on Interstate 49 knows the highway needs expansion, which is a project underway. Several other highway projects such as the Bella Vista Bypass are also in the works, Malone said. The Council is also working on the transit issue, he said. Another development in this area is the development of a CNG refueling network, which was created when affected companies collaborated to solve the problem of not having any CNG refueling options in the area.
• Excessive airfare rates
Thirty-five percent of airline tickets purchased by people in Northwest Arkansas are from airports other than the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, Malone said. XNA officials are working to get a low-cost provider.
“Even with the great connections we have (from that airport), the fares are still just too high,” Malone said, adding that most of the travelers affected are in the leisure or small business categories.
• Startup/Entrepreneur support
NWA is already a hotbed for entrepreneurialism but it could be even stronger if there was a way to fill in the funding gaps in the startup ecosystem, Malone said.
After the meeting, Keaton Smith with Emerging Leaders who spearheaded the event, said he thinks the event was important because “young people have a lot of great ideas and it’s important for them to feel like they have an impact on their community. This a forum for young people with ideas to share with the current generation of leaders.” Smith added he hopes the momentum will continue and encouraged all NWA residents to continue the discussion at this site.