Northwest Arkansas is poised for continued growth from several of its key employment sectors., according to economic development officials from around the region who spoke to the Chamber Leadership Fayetteville class at noon Friday in Fayetteville.
Steve Clark, CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said healthcare is an obvious area of growth in the region, but technology is also a growing sector in the region and Fayetteville has dubbed itself the “Startup Capital of the South.”
“Say it enough and you will make it so,” Clark said.
He cites the innovation district, Fab Lab and work by Startup Junkie as contributing to the startup and technology growth around the city and region. Clark daid Highlands Oncology is now working with IBM Watson to find clinical trials for which their patients may be eligible. He said technology is changing how businesses operate in the region, nation and world.
Dr. Thaddeus Beck at Highlands Oncology said Watson’s unique ability to analyze a patient’s medical record and check it against lists of complex trial eligibility criteria is helping oncologists at Highlands enroll more patients in trials and contribute to research on a local and national level.
Mike Harvey, interim CEO for Northwest Arkansas Council, said the rise in technology jobs around the region has created a sizable demographic shift. He said the region’s population of 525,000 is hurdling into the unknown by 2030. He said new jobs are also raising the number of immigrants who relocate to Benton and Washington counties. He said one in five new residents is a foreign national. The influx is primarily Asian and mostly Indian who work in the technology trades in Bentonville’s third-tier of suppliers to Wal-Mart. He said IT jobs fall into the Business and Professional Services category which is also been among the faster sectors for job creation in the region.
Clark said Fayetteville is well aware of the new American economy thriving largely because of foreign born individuals. He said 2,500 of the 9,000 local jobs created last year around the region was from immigrants. He said this group is more risk averse and willing to gamble on business startup.
“We go to several conferences each year and this is not unique to Northwest Arkansas. It’s happening in Kansas City, Austin, and St. Louis as well. We have 1,700 international students at the University (of Arkansas) and many of them want to stay here,” he said.
Harvey said about 25,000 regional residents work in manufacturing and it remains an important sector for the region, but one that has been losing jobs overtime.
Clark said tool maker Marshalltown located in Fayetteville for three decades has expanded it’s facility with 65,000 additional square feet and is adding about 100 new jobs. He said it’s important for the cities in the region to protect their legacy businesses.
On that that point, Nathan Reed, economic development director for the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce, said the city and chamber worked to convince Simmons Foods to invest locally with a new wet-ingredient facility that will make pet food. Reed said the Siloam Springs-based company considered building the $26 million plant near one of its facilities in Oklahoma. But local chamber officials and the city convinced Simmons to build in Siloam Springs. Reed said the new plant will bring 78 new jobs to the city and these aren’t typical poultry line work, but are higher-paying.
Springdale Chamber of Commerce President Perry Webb said Tyson Foods and the Tyson family continue to invest in downtown Springdale, which “was all but dead, a few years ago.”
“John Tyson is investing about $80 million dollars on Emma Avenue downtown over the past 12 to 14 months. … The Razorback Greenway led to new investment and a rebirth for Springdale’s downtown,” he said, adding that the city has invested in infrastructure and the private investment that followed has been exciting to watch.
Debbie Griffin, vice president of communication, marketing and design for the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce, said the 8th Street widening underway in Bentonville is going as scheduled. She said the exchange is supposed to help with traffic flow to and from Wal-Mart’s home office.
“We have a population of 40,000, but a working population of 55,000 and our daytime population rises to 75,000 during the workday which stresses our road infrastructure. … (and) the vendors who travel into the region daily also add to the traffic congestion.”
One of the hottest destinations in Northwest Arkansas is downtown Bentonville. Griffin said the 8th Street Exchange will make it easier to get there from Interstate 49 once it’s completed in 2019. The 8th Street Market is also an active scene with the new Brightwater Culinary School. She said Bike Rack Brewery will anchor one end of the 8th Street Market. Jeff Carlson, a former Walmart technology professional is one of the owners of Bike Rack. Griffin said he knew technology deals today are made while also enjoying craft beer. Yeyo’s Mexican will also locate in the 8th Street Market later this year.
Steve Cox, economic development director for the Rogers Chamber of Commerce, said there is considerable work underway to transform that city’s downtown. He said with the new Haas Hall Academy to be located downtown and the expansion of the Benton County School of the Arts, there will 1,000 high school students downtown each day which will greatly add to the traffic counts for local eateries and shops.
Cox said one project he’s eager to see move forward is the rezoning of about 200 acres on the west side of I-49 at the Pleasant Grove Road exit. The tract, known as Mills Family Farm, is zoned agricultural, but the family is seeking to have it rezoned for residential multifamily (22 acres), residential office (9.84 acres), commercial (152.24 acres), according to plans on file with the city.
And of course, the healthcare sector is booming in the region. Harvey said roughly a half-billion dollars in healthcare investments are being made in the region over the next two years, which will add about 1,500 jobs, making it the largest growing employment sector. He said for every 100 healthcare jobs created there are about 44 other jobs also created which is likely to keep this sector outpacing others for job creation into the next decade.
Clark said the $60 million expansion to Washington Regional Hospital added more than 100 new jobs and now that hospital has more rooms than the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.