A study commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville to measure the impact of the organization’s downtown efforts throughout Northwest Arkansas showed positive economic progress, while also indicating a need for more accessible housing options in Benton and Washington counties.
The 71-page report, compiled by the Center for Business and Economic Research in the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton School of Business in Fayetteville, looks at trends during a five-year period from 2012 to 2017 and shows “various stages of progress” on the implementation of master plans in the five largest downtowns in the region: Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Springdale and Siloam Springs, according to a press release from the foundation.
Bentonville had the largest resident population downtown at 4,167, while Fayetteville showed the fastest growth in that realm, at close to 3% during the five-year period. All five downtowns showed strong millennial demographic populations. Downtown Springdale had the youngest median age for residents, at 28 years old, and downtown Rogers had the highest resident median age at 35 years old, according to the report, titled “Measuring the Vitality of Downtowns in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Springdale.”
Bentonville and Fayetteville downtowns reported the largest number of commercial and residential building permits, and Springdale had the third-largest number between 2012 and 2017, though the permit values were lower, according to CBER. Commercial real estate prices per square foot grew the most in Rogers, and Bentonville and Fayetteville followed.
During the five-year period, vacancy rates in commercial office space declined across the region’s downtowns. Retail vacancy rates climbed slightly in 2017 – a factor the CBER tied to added space in downtown Bentonville – after climbing each year from 2012 to 2016.
All five of the cities have shown a focus on downtowns and have master plans in place. Fayetteville and Bentonville initiated plans in 2004, Siloam Springs in 2014 and Springdale and Rogers in 2015. The Walton Foundation has funded a number of initiatives to improve the region’s downtowns as part of its Home Region 2020 Strategic Plan, which includes a focus on preserving a “sense of place” within the region, establishing the region as a leader in arts and cultural amenities and expanding K-12 school options. The area’s downtown also have been the setting for many of the design projects funded by the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program.
“Trails, arts, schools and green spaces support vibrant downtown communities,” said Home Region Program Director Karen Minkel, according to a press release from the foundation. “Northwest Arkansas has created a network of desirable neighborhoods by connecting these amenities in our city cores.”
Demand for downtown living was on the rise, and as a result residential real estate prices per square foot rose throughout Northwest Arkansas. Prices rose sharply in downtown Bentonville, increasing more than 200%. Costs in Rogers more than doubled during the time period, and prices grew 46% in Springdale, 32% in Siloam Springs and 13% in Fayetteville, according to the study.
The rise in price is among the housing trends “that may limit residents’ future accessibility to downtown living,” according to the Walton Foundation press release. The data also showed significantly declining multifamily vacancy rates, even as units were added in the cities across the region.
To help address these issues, the foundation plans to commission a year-long study on workforce housing and long-term regional housing growth in Northwest Arkansas. The study will include an analysis of the region’s needs, as well as a comprehensive housing plan. It will also provide recommendations on housing options for residents from a broad range of income levels, with a special focus on downtown living.
“Planning for the study will be a community-embedded process,” according to the press release. “A housing council comprised of local leaders and stakeholders will ensure the work is relevant in and reflective of each community.”
In addition to its own housing study, the foundation previously awarded a $250,000 grant to the UA Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design for the “Housing Northwest Arkansas” initiative, which will host a housing symposium on Saturday (Feb. 3) at The Record in Bentonville and on Sunday (Feb. 4) at Vol Walker Hall on the UA campus in Fayetteville. The event will feature a number of panelists and speakers, including former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan.
The Housing NWA initiative also involves advanced design studio on housing design research and prototypes in the spring 2018 semester, in addition to a design competition for mixed-use housing plans, including live-work units in Bentonville.
“This moment represents both a challenge and opportunity for the region,” Minkel said in the release. “Ensuring downtown living and its amenities are accessible to all will set our region apart from other top desirable places to live.”
The foundation also recently announced a $400,000, one-year grant to Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit real-estate developer and property manager for arts facilities, in order to assess the availability of exhibition, performance space, studio area and affordable housing for artists in Northwest Arkansas. Related efforts also include a $120,000 grant to the Community Development Corporation of Bentonville/Bella Vista through the foundation’s Design Excellence Program to develop schematic designs for four auxiliary dwelling units in downtown Bentonville. All design specifications and construction documents will be shared with the public and commercial developers to encourage additional attainable housing development in Bentonville and other downtown markets, according to the foundation.