Northwest Arkansas became the most prosperous part of the state thanks to its being home to some of the world’s best businessmen and Arkansas’ biggest university. Now one of the reasons it’s becoming even more prosperous is because it thinks regionally, not just locally.
Further evidence for how well that part of the state is doing came last week. The metropolitan statistical area (MSA) that includes Washington, Benton and Madison counties along with Missouri’s McDonald County ranked fourth out of 383 MSAs nationally last year in its average job growth. That’s according to an Arizona State University study of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. Taking a snapshot of how the region finished 2014 compared to the end of 2013, it was 11th.
The Jonesboro area also finished near the top, placing 11th in average job growth and 14th comparing year-end totals. Fort Smith was 110th in average job growth but a much better 34th in its year-end growth. The Little Rock region was in the middle of the pack, while the Hot Springs and Pine Bluff regions lost jobs. Pine Bluff ranked 370th in its average job growth and 343rd comparing 2013 and 2014 year-end totals.
Obviously, Northwest Arkansas has huge advantages over other parts of the state. Those include the University of Arkansas, which floods Fayetteville with 25,000 tuition-paying students, and the corporate headquarters of Walmart, which employs many thousands while attracting well over a thousand vendors’ offices to Bentonville and the surrounding area.
Other parts of the state can’t just build a new university or wait for the next Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, to appear. However, they can copy Northwest Arkansas’ regional mindset. The area is composed, not of an urban core with suburbs, but instead of a string of mid-sized cities laid practically end to end, and its leaders realize that what benefits one city benefits the others.
Kalene Griffin, for example, is head of the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau. It’s her job to bring people to Bentonville, but her city doesn’t currently have a facility that can host a large convention, so, when necessary, she sells her region instead of just her town.
“If somebody calls me about a meeting that we can’t service, that’s too large for us, my goal is to pass it on to Rogers and Springdale and Fayetteville,” she told me. “If it’s going to come, I want it to come into Northwest Arkansas because the city of Bentonville will benefit from it.”
The lines on the map that separate one Northwest Arkansas city from another don’t really matter that much in everyday life. As Griffin knows, many visitors who spend the night in neighboring Rogers will visit Bentonville’s attractions and service providers. Meanwhile, an attraction like Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is within an easy drive for anyone living in the area. The tens of thousands of people employed by Walmart and its vendors live in and spend money all over the region, as do employees at other corporate headquarters such as J.B. Hunt and Tyson.
Leaders across the region think the same way Griffin does. Neighboring towns see themselves as business partners rather than high school football rivals — what Griffin calls the “Friday night syndrome.” (Take note, Benton and Bryant.) Together, the cities are constructing the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Greenway, a 36-mile walking and biking trail that will meander through six downtowns. Area businesses and foundations support the Northwest Arkansas Council, a coordinating agency that works with local communities on infrastructure and quality of life issues. The council developed a five-year plan in 2010 with 56 projects and, so far, has completed or made progress on 53 of them, according to Mike Murphy, president and CEO.
There is only one University of Arkansas and there was only one Sam Walton, but there are lots of towns in Arkansas within about 20 miles of their neighbors. By thinking regionally, those towns can broaden their job bases and cultural amenities while still rooting for their football teams. Friday night rivalries are fun, but they should be a yearly event, not an ongoing mindset.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.