A recent Walton Family Foundation survey found that 72% of respondents rated their overall quality of life in Northwest Arkansas as “excellent” or “very good,” up from 59% in the foundation’s 2012 survey.
One of the biggest assets that Northwest Arkansas offers its residents is a strong ’quality of life’ given the region’s Razorback Greenway trail system, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Scott Family Amazeum, the Walmart AMP, Jones Center, farmer’s markets and dozens of other venues and activities across the region, according to the survey report.
WFF has been a major advocate for “Quality of Life” investments in the region for several years, investing nearly $97 million distributed to 51 local organizations in the past three years. To gauge how well these investments are paying off, the nonprofit recently surveyed more than 1,000 local residents in the two-county area hoping to assess public feedback.
The survey found 95% reported being “very happy” or “fairly happy” with the aspects of Northwest Arkansas life which was directly impacted by the foundation’s investments in downtowns cultural amenities and the Razorback Greenway trail system.
The survey posed three questions focused on how happy residents were with life overall – how they would rate their quality of life, whether they consider themselves happy and whether they felt their quality of life had improved in the past year.
“Our goal in Northwest Arkansas is clear; we support quality of life initiatives that help the region attract and retain top talent,” said Karen Minkel, home region director for the Walton Family Foundation. “This survey tracks the impact of the work we’ve done and identifies potential opportunities for the foundation and our partners.”
She said foundation investments in the cultural amenities like Crystal Bridges have resulted in more residents using the venue. The number of residents who reported visiting the museum is up 21% from 2012. She said Hispanic residents’ overall attendance growth at the museum up 32% from 2012.
One of the biggest region’s most used amenities is the Razorback Greenway with 69% of survey respondents reporting they have used the trails in the last 12 months. About 8 out of 10 residents use local parks, many of which are connected to, or are located near the Razorback Greenway.
While wealthier residents were typically more likely to report using the local trail system, there were high rates of trail use reported among all income levels. The lowest rate of trail usage by income category was 55% and the highest rate was 96%. There was also a difference in reported trail use based on metro area. Bentonville had the highest usages at 81% and Fayetteville was second at 71% reporting trail use. Rogers had 61% and Springdale at 53%.
Steve Clark, CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, recently told Talk Business & Politics that the trail system in the northern part of the city is undergoing several new large multifamily and mixed-use developments and he’s a believer that connected trail infrastructure draws people and investors. Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse has also been vocal about the importance the trail infrastructure plays in helping to create unique gathering places like the planned Turbos Park at the Razorback Trailhead in downtown Springdale.
Sprouse said the Walton Family Foundation helped to breath new life into the trail completion through the Springdale downtown area with a $10 million matching grant, which was used to unearth Mill Creek that ran under Emma Avenue and created Turnbow Plaza park at the Razorback trail head in downtown Springdale.
Sprouse said Turnbow Plaza will be completed in July thanks to the WFF as well as support from the Endeavor Foundation ($493,000) and Tyson Foods ($100,000). He said the city has also spent a considerable amount of its own tax money to try and catch up with its neighbors – especially Fayetteville and Bentonville which have prepared food taxes that go toward parks.
“We know quality of life is important and that means having places where residents can get outside and enjoy natural settings whether that’s J.B. Hunt Park or the new 65-acre city park opening in the Southeast part of Springdale in a few weeks,” he said.
The survey also found that one-third of respondents reported an increase in visits to downtown over the last year. Which is thanks in part to the trail system that runs through the downtowns of Bentonville and Springdale. Other investments in craft brewing, clubs and entertainment venues as well restaurants have become common in the downtowns of Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville over the past three years as well.
Mike Malone, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the survey findings reinforce what he consistently hears from area residents and business leaders.
“I often hear how appreciative they are to live in an area that offers a friendly environment but with access to outstanding culture and beautiful trails,” he said.
Common themes about what influences quality of life among the residents were family, finances and health. Minkel said while family and finance were consistent with findings in 2012, the aspect of health was a new theme, replacing jobs. Researchers were not surprised to see “jobs” fall out of the top three concerns given that metro area’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, now below 3%.
Also noted as positive regional attributes in the survey findings were: a low crime rate, civic engagement and feelings of acceptance by the community. Each of these were reasons why residents say they want to stay in the community.