NWA Council says region at ‘critical inflection point’, puts forth new strategic plan

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,500 views 

The Northwest Arkansas Council convened its annual meeting Thursday (July 14) in Springdale, where it released a new report that provides recommendations to strengthen a region at a crossroads.

Entitled “Northwest Arkansas Regional Strategy: 2022-2026,” the report says Northwest Arkansas, one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies, is being tested by its own success, specifically population growth (4th nationally), job growth (3rd nationally), wage growth (2nd nationally) and quality of life investments.

Officials said Thursday that the region’s challenges to those things are primarily in the form of housing unaffordability and economic inequality.

Approximately 150 people attended Thursday’s luncheon at the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Ozark Highlands Nature Center.

“Northwest Arkansas has reached a critical inflection point,” the report said. “The region should continue to press forward with economic growth and talent attraction for the benefit of all of its residents, but stakeholders and policymakers must act boldly to preserve its quality of life and affordable cost of living. The time to act is now.”

The council’s five-year strategy and recommendations fall into five categories:

  • Continue the focus on developing, attracting and retaining diverse talent.
  • Expand efforts to bolster the innovation economy and entrepreneurial ecosystems.
  • Put significant additional focus and investments on addressing the challenges of growth, providing affordable housing and preserving character and quality of life.
  • Keep building on Northwest Arkansas’ brand as a vibrant, thriving, up-and-coming and inclusive community which offers a high quality of life for all.
  • Expand the civic capacity of the Northwest Arkansas Council and related organizations to address new challenges and needs.

Council staff will develop a five-year plan based on the recommendations to ensure strategies and associated action items are implemented and evaluated. It may only take a few weeks for some action items, but it may take five years for others.

The council worked with Richard Florida to put the strategy together. It’s based on quantitative and qualitative research, including a review of data on the region’s economic and demographic growth.

Florida, who spoke at Thursday’s luncheon, is an urbanist, professor and author. He’s also the founder of the Creative Class Group, a global consultancy that works closely with companies and governments worldwide. Florida first visited Northwest Arkansas in 2018 and warned stakeholders at AN economic development gathering about the challenges accompanying economic success.

He said the time to act is now with intentional strategies.

“This [report] is not saying, ‘Stop growing,’” he said. “What is needed is a smart and intentional strategy for continued growth.”

Florida added that housing affordability and quality of place should be front and center to the region’s talent attraction and economic development strategies.

Another finding from the research is that the council needs to expand its scale and scope of work, complementing ongoing efforts in the areas of economic development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and talent development, attraction and retention, with a focus on improving physical and social infrastructure, addressing housing, and ensuring that continued growth is inclusive.

Due to its convening power, ability to attract community leaders’ attention, and history of success, the council plays an essential role in setting priorities and executing strategies. By harnessing, galvanizing, and guiding the work and investments of governments, corporations, philanthropies, and neighborhood and civic organizations, the council can have a significant impact.

“Simply put, the goal is to ensure that the next 20 years are as good as the last,” the report said.

For a PDF of the 29-page report, click here.

According to data presented at Thursday’s luncheon, home prices in the past five years have increased 43% in Benton County and 47% in Washington County. The increases have pushed home ownership out of the reach of many of the community’s essential workforce like teachers, firefighters, healthcare and manufacturing workers.

Affordable housing has been on the council’s radar for a while now, and the group made housing a priority late last year by forming the workforce housing center, led by Duke McLarty.

Council CEO Nelson Peacock said he’d visited with metro leaders in multiple regions including Minneapolis, Minn., San Francisco, San Diego and Austin, Texas in developing the five-year strategy. He said most of them told him they’d wished they had focused on the housing affordability problem two decades ago the way Northwest Arkansas regional leaders are doing now.

“Based on that [feedback], that’s how far ahead we are,” Peacock said. “Ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much to people that we are affordable compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. We’re working on our scale. But, [Florida] makes a very good point. We need to start now.”

Council said McLarty and the workforce housing center had convened a work group and developed an internal strategic plan. They’ve also developed a communications strategy to articulate the issue’s importance.

“Hopefully all of those things are aligning and you will see some [tangible] results in the early fall,” Peacock said.

Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) Director Austin Booth also spoke at Thursday’s luncheon. He said the AGFC intends to build its flagship shooting facility in Northwest Arkansas. It’s intended for local recreational use and to be a nationally recognized destination for major competitions.

AGFC officials have not determined a site for the complex. Booth said an RFP (request for proposal) will become available in August for location and incentives.

Booth said that recreational shooting has an economic impact of approximately $486 million in Arkansas.

Council Presiding Co-Chair Marshall Saviers also announced three new members: Accenture, Waste Management and Arkansas Community Foundation.