Home to the largest retailer in the world, with more than 300 new businesses created annually and more than $1 billion of capital investment since 2014, Northwest Arkansas is a major player in the global economy.
According to Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce President Steve Clark, the region – comprising Benton, Washington and Madison counties – benchmarks its achievements against cities such as Austin, Texas; Raleigh, N.C.; Provo, Utah; Des Moines, Iowa and Madison, Wisc.
Clark stressed that while NWA may comprise three separate counties with their own cities, their own political leaders and their own chambers of commerce, they all work together to carry out one interwoven regional approach.
In the last 10 years, Northwest Arkansas has seen tremendous growth. Clark breaks it down in terms of population. From 2010 to 2019, Benton County grew its population from 221,339 people to 279,141. Washington County grew from 203,065 to 239,187. For comparison, in that timeframe, Benton County increased its population six times faster, and Washington County grew four times faster, than Pulaski County.
“Fayetteville grows at a rate of one new person every six hours which, means at breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight, someone is either born in Fayetteville or moves to Fayetteville,” Clark said. “Where you have people, you have business, jobs and opportunity being created.”
More people also means more sales tax revenue. The sales tax money collected in Bentonville in 2018 was 38.9 percent higher than the previous year, adding up to almost $16.5 million. Fayetteville increased its collected tax by 4.6 percent, totaling more than $22 million. Rogers increased 4.6 percent bringing in more than $19 million, and Springdale increased 3.9 percent earning more than $15 million.
Business investment in the area was strong last year. In 2019, Mercy Hospital unveiled its new $147 million, seven-story tower in Rogers and invested another $100 million in additional facilities across the area. Simmons Foods invested in a $300 million expansion of its chicken processing plant and has said it will increase its employee number from 900 to 2,300 by 2022. Walmart continues to build a new 300-acre corporate office in Bentonville at a cost of $1 billion. The city of Fayetteville opened the largest solar array on city-owned land in Arkansas, in partnership with Ozarks Electric Cooperative and Today’s Power, at a cost of $23 million. And a $102 million road project is underway on the Bella Vista bypass that will connect NWA to Canada on Interstate 49.
Clark believes the people of NWA have shown remarkable tenacity. Even today, with the uncertainty many areas are feeling in regards to the economy, he has realistic optimism for his city and the surrounding area in the days ahead.
“How has the coronavirus impacted our area finances?” Clark reflected. “It has impacted us just the same way it has throughout most of the U.S. Because of uncertainty, small, medium and large businesses have lost revenue, opportunities for future revenue and cannot plan on a six month or longer basis. However, I would share with you that no one in NWA is expecting to push back any of our goals and objectives regarding building and developing our region. We will have to work smarter, and in some instances longer, but I believe everyone in the region expects all our goals will be met.”
Cameron Smith, founder of corporate recruiting agency Cameron Smith & Associates, says NWA industries most impacted by COVID-19 have been the food-service, hospitality, transportation, health care and entertainment industries. Some have enacted temporary cuts in salary and compensation incentives to avoid layoffs. The construction industry has not seen much of an impact; there’s been a backlog of construction projects in the area for the next five years.
“Most of the supplier teams for Walmart have absorbed the impact and maintained headcount, especially the mid-size and larger companies,” he explained. “Some smaller companies with complex supply chains – think general merchandise and apparel, non-domestic companies – furloughed some employees early into the pandemic and are starting to ramp back up.”
Smith also noted that hiring has slowed as there are less open positions than there were before March, but he is optimistic that the worst is behind us in terms of unemployment, particularly in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) area his firm specializes in, and that hiring will resume in the near future as buying habits return to normalcy.
“We are encouraged by the creativity exhibited by the business community, especially small businesses. They are showing how flexible and nimble they can be,” Smith said.
He expects that some of the changes that have happened in company culture will remain in the long term. Working remotely, web conferencing and focusing on products with the highest demand are attractive cost-savings overall that businesses will hold on to, he said.