Affordable housing, medical school, art part of NWA Council annual meeting

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,438 views 

Rendering for the new mixed-used affordable housing development known as “Big Emma," a project in conjunction with the NWA Council mission to bring more affordable housing to the region.

Nelson Peacock, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said Tuesday (July 18) during the group’s annual meeting that one of the toughest challenges the region faces is affordable housing for service providers such as teachers and healthcare technicians.

Peacock and other Council officials, during the meeting held at the Momentary in Bentonville, highlighted various initiatives underway to prepare the area for the continued growth that is expected to reach 600,000 population by next spring. The Council also estimates that the metro population will reach 1 million by 2045.

“There is no blueprint for how to make sure you have affordable housing in a fast-growing region like ours. We are starting early enough in our journey that we hope we can make a difference,” Peacock said.

The region’s rental vacancy rate is 1.7%, and single-family home prices have risen significantly in the past few years, outpacing the median income growth, according to Duke McLarty, executive director of Groundwork, the group within the Council dedicated to the affordable housing agenda. He said while the median family income has risen to $92,000, they are still being priced out of the home market that requires an income of $130,000 to afford houses on the fringe of the region, such as western Washington County or Siloam Springs.

The Council reports with average home prices of $401,875 in Benton County and $375,018 in Washington County, far too many households do not earn enough to purchase a home close to their workplaces. McClarty said the $130,000 price range for housing is still 140% of the average median family income, and inventory is too low at the $130,000 price point. Over the past year, McClarty said Groundwork has been working with stakeholders to address the lack of affordable housing in downtown areas of the region.

At the meeting, Groundwork announced its first investment in an attainable housing development to be constructed in Springdale. The project is supported by a $6.75 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Dubbed “Big Emma” by its planners, the 77-unit mixed-income apartment development will be located on Emma Avenue in downtown Springdale. The investment from Groundwork ensures 30 of the units will be permanently reserved for households earning below the region’s median income.

“Northwest Arkansas’ rapid growth has caused housing to become increasingly inaccessible for the region’s workers and their families,” McLarty said. “While growth is great news for the economy, more must be done to ensure there are adequate housing options for the workers that make up the fabric of the community. Groundwork’s first investment in downtown Springdale will serve as a model for future projects to provide more affordable housing options near core city centers.”

He said “Big Emma” is centrally located in downtown Springdale to be close and walkable to other important amenities like grocery stores, health clinics, pharmacies and recreation opportunities like Luther George Park, the Razorback Regional Greenway and The Jones Center. Designed by BiLd Architects, the mixed-use development will break ground in the next few weeks and will also include a ground-floor coffee shop.

McLarty said the project will be managed by Community Development Northwest Arkansas to ensure perpetual affordability and to maintain tenant income compliance on the workforce units. The project was originally commissioned by Shiloh Capital, an investment fund owned by Springdale natives Ken Hall, Don Harris and Tom Lundstrum. The group also developed “Little Emma” less than a block away.

Dr. Sharmila Makhija, founding dean and CEO of the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine (AWSOM) under construction in Bentonville, spoke at the meeting about the school and its mission to begin training doctors by the fall of 2025. She said AWSOM will offer a 4-year medical doctor program that builds on foundation sciences and clinical practices with compassion, inclusivity and the whole health approach to care.

“We have an incredible founder with a vision to redefine health care and bridge the gap to better overall health and wellness. You do not see that level of passion and commitment in other places,” she said.

Makhija said the 154,000-square-foot building will be integrated with the natural surroundings and include public spaces such as pond areas, a healing garden and an outdoor amphitheater. She said the AWSOM is awaiting accreditation but is confident it will come in time to open on schedule. Phase 1 will have slots for 48 doctors.

“We want AWSOM to be part of the local community and a resource that embraces the culture of self-care. We will be located near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the [Scott Family] Amazeum,” she said.

Crystal Bridges also highlighted its ongoing expansion on its campus with the new parking garage and expanded gallery and education space. The 100,000-square-foot addition on the north side of the campus will increase the museum site by 50%. The expansion underway is expected to be completed by 2024.

Marshall Saviers stepped down as co-presiding chair of the NWA Council at the meeting on Tuesday after two years. He passed the office to Todd Simmons, CEO of Simmons Foods, who will serve as the presiding co-chair for this next year.

The Council also voted to move its meeting dates to the spring and fall seasons from the winter and summer months, with the next meeting slated for the spring of 2024 with the next annual meeting later next fall.