Northwest Arkansas is a great place to live and work but that also comes with challenges, according to city leaders along with state and national politicians who spoke at a Builders Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) luncheon in Bentonville on Thursday (Aug. 18).
The leaders spoke about policy and a number of challenges the region faces with its ongoing population growth such as affordable housing, workforce development and infrastructure expansion.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, kicked off the luncheon with an update of what is to be expected from Congress before the fiscal year ends in October. He said it’s highly likely there will be talk of a government shutdown at the federal level because the budget is nowhere near passing by either the House or the Senate.
Womack said inflation is a big concern at the federal level but there is not an easy fix because of all the money that was poured into the economy during the pandemic. He said larger concerns like responsible funding of national security and the looming national debt of $31 trillion are problems because of the lack of progress being made.
“If you can’t complete something as essential as a budget on time, then you have no hope of fixing larger issues such as national security, supply chain, inflation and looming national debt,” Womack said.
Joe Rollins, director of workforce development at the Northwest Arkansas Council, spoke about the challenges of growing a labor force in the region. He said the Council has several programs in place to try bridge the communication gap about the kinds of jobs that exist in the region.
“The average working age in Northwest Arkansas is 34,” Rollins said. “We have a young working population here and on any given day there are between 9,000 and 11,000 open jobs posted in Benton and Washington counties. Our unemployment rate is roughly 2% and we have got to recruit more people to the region.”
The Council has a careers website that not only lists the available jobs in the region but also provides company information, benefits and pay, and descriptions of the types of jobs available in the region. He said the Council is also working with local schools and colleges and will hold sessions each month to try and provide more information about open jobs and training opportunities by the business sector. The first meeting is slated for Aug. 30 and will cover the career opportunities in retail trade.
“We want students and those needing to retrain for new careers to know there is abundant opportunity to earn well and grow professionally in the region regardless of age or education level,” Rollins said.
Rollins said childcare is also a problem in the area as roughly 200 facilities closed during the pandemic. He said not all of them have reopened because they cannot find workers. He said the Council is working with businesses to help provide grants and other incentives to help entice workers to come back.
Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, spoke about the ongoing commitments the agency is making in the region’s road infrastructure. Tudor outlined $800 million of road infrastructure projects planned for Northwest Arkansas in the next couple of years. The biggest ticket item is more work to the U.S. Highway 412 bypass around Springdale. She said roughly $500 million has been appropriated for 20 more miles of four-lane road from Arkansas 112 to Tontitown connecting to U.S. 412. She said a connector road to Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) from the 412 bypass will also be part of that project with a cost of $7 million. The connector will get underway by late 2023.
Also on tap is widening Arkansas 112 to four lanes from Fayetteville to Bentonville. The project will cost $200 million and is projected to begin in 2024.
Northwest Arkansas city leaders spoke about how their cities are dealing with growing population and infrastructure concerns. Tyler Overstreet, Bentonville director of planning, said the city’s population has nearly doubled in 10 years and there is no sign of it slowing. In-house estimates have Bentonville’s population at 57,000 and by 2040 expect it will reach 100,000.
He said the city is involved in several major road improvements such as making the intersection at Rainbow Curve and Airport Road more navigable as well as a new interchange off of J Street. He said the city is spending $175 million on road projects over the next year.
He said more money is also going into parks and recreation with the latest being a planned park where the Walmart Home Office is now located. The Walton family purchased the corporate office property from Walmart for $60 million. The campus has 65 acres and some of that will be a city park. Other large projects in downtown include two large office buildings and making Northwest A Street into more of a promenade. Overstreet said the city leaders will be re-evaluating and updating its land usage policy to ensure all vacant land around town is put to its best use.
John McCurdy, director of community development in Rogers, said affordable housing continues to be a problem. He said figuring out how to create more pockets of density where people can live and work and shop is a big challenge. He said cities that keep sprawling will lose their beauty and that is not going to happen in Rogers.
“The number one challenge we face is affordable housing that continues to sprawl out toward cheaper land such as in Gentry or Cave Springs. These small towns may or may not have the revenue to maintain the infrastructure their growing cities are going to require,” McCurdy said.
McCurdy said the city is spending $275 million to create more connectivity around the city and to relieve traffic on major roadways which at five lanes are expensive to maintain.
Devin Howland, director of economic development in Fayetteville, said like Bentonville the city’s growth at six new people a day has the population projections reaching 151,000 by 2045. A big challenge for the city is the $230 million bond passed in 2018 does not keep up with costs. He said some projects have been bid out four times because no one wanted to do the work at the price allotted.
Colby Fulfer, chief of staff for Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse, noted the growth the city has seen in its medical district since Arkansas Children’s Hospital was located there in 2018. He said four other health providers have inquired about locating in the region joining Mercy and Highlands Oncology Group, which is destined to grow with the recent closure of Cancer Centers of America in Tulsa.
Fulfer also referenced that the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has chosen the area as the site for a new $85 million orthopedic hospital and sports medicine center. Two other providers are also considering establishing operations in that area, but Fulfer did not name them.