Note: This Northwest Arkansas Council history was first published in the organization's annual report in July 2015 to describe some of the organization's work over its 25 years.
Long-Time Infrastructure Focus Now Includes Quality of Life, Job Expansion
Today's top business leaders remain every bit as involved as Sam Walton, Don and John Tyson, and J.B. Hunt were when the Council was started.
Focusing on what’s good for the region as a whole rather than what’s best for one city, county or business, nearly every step the Council took over 25 years favored no Northwest Arkansas community over another.
The Council was instrumental in the development of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, and for working to bring funding for projects such as U.S. 412 from Siloam Springs to Springdale. Northwest Arkansas was among the largest metropolitan areas in the nation without an interstate highway connection, and getting one was immediately a Council priority.
Additionally, the Council helped obtain federal grants and loans that led to the Benton/Washington Regional Public Water Authority’s formation, ultimately delivering Beaver Lake drinking water to smaller cities and towns across the region.
All the while, John Paul Hammerschmidt, who was the Council’s chairman from 1993 to 2006, reminded members that the Council didn’t build any physical infrastructure. His message was that the Council could facilitate and bring people together, but it was the public entity that accomplished the goal.
“The Council could look at the options, attempt to identify the best one and become an advocate and encourage the public entities to pursue it,” said Scott Van Laningham, the president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
The Council’s roots were established about a decade before the airport, the highway projects or the water system were done. It was probably in 1986 or 1987 — no one knows for sure — when Walmart founder Sam Walton dialed up Fayetteville banker and long-time friend John Lewis to talk about the need for Northwest Arkansas cities and companies to work together, said Tommy Deweese, a current member of the Northwest Arkansas Council who knew both men.
“That’s sorta like Genesis in the Bible,” Deweese said. “That’s when the Council was formed. It was the ‘in the beginning.’
“John and I laughed about it. Sam made the call to John and said I think we can get things accomplished regionally that the individual towns can’t accomplish by themselves. From that point, I heard John keep saying ‘Friday night loyalty was good on Friday night, but the regional concept has a whole lot more to offer.’ Regional was the way to go.”
Rogers attorney David Matthews, a Council member since those earliest days when the organization was forming, said the Council was Lewis’ “brainchild.”
“John Lewis had talked about a round-table group of influential business leaders to promote Northwest Arkansas,” Matthews said. “But John Lewis, as good as he was, didn’t have the stick to make things happen. Once you had buy-in from Sam and the Walmart folks and the Tyson folks, the rest was easy.”
Sam Walton, his son Rob Walton, Don Tyson, Jack Stephens, Charles Murphy and a small group of state business leaders had already formed the Arkansas Business Council in 1987, and it had worked on a statewide basis to address business issues and higher education. A newspaper columnist deemed it “the Good Suit Club.”
“I don’t think anyone ever voiced the idea that Sam and Don and Rob and others in Northwest Arkansas decided to have the Northwest Arkansas Council replace the Arkansas Business Council,” said Archie Schaffer III, a Northwest Arkansas Council member who back in the day served as the Arkansas Business Council’s executive director. “Many people, particularly in Northwest Arkansas, felt like in many ways it did.”
The Northwest Arkansas Council did officially come together in 1990. A year earlier, Oklahoma leaders had traveled to Siloam Springs to announce that they’d be connecting Tulsa to Arkansas via a high-quality, four-lane highway, putting pressure on Arkansas to do something about its unimpressive two-lane route from Siloam Springs to Springdale.
In 1990, Sam Walton summoned Uvalde Lindsey, the head of the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison, and his wife, Carol, to a meeting at a Fayetteville bank. Lindsey and many others aren’t 100 percent sure who attended, but the list was a who’s who of Northwest Arkansas: Sam’s wife Helen was there and so were Lewis, Tyson, Jim Blair, Red Hudson, Frank Broyles, Walter Turnbow, John Cooper, Ross Pendergraft, Vic Evans, Bob Lamb, Ed Bradberry and many others.
“He laid out what he wanted us to do,” Lindsey said. “We huddled for a minute, said ‘yes,’ and moved 30 days later.”
Lindsey’s first assignment was big: Gear up for Springdale to host the U.S. House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Hammerschmidt was a committee member.
On Sept. 8, 1990, Northwest Arkansas Council members Sam Walton, Don Tyson, Jim Blair, Alice Walton and J.B. Hunt were among the speakers who told the committee that the region’s economic future hinged on three critical projects: Building four-lane U.S. 412 from Siloam Springs to Springdale, completing U.S. 71 as a four-lane highway from Kansas City to Shreveport and building a regional airport.
Sam Walton said his company’s sales of $32 billion could quadruple to $130 billion by 2000. “But we need the airport and the roads to do it,” Walton said, according to the Arkansas Gazette.
Dan Ferritor, who was the University of Arkansas chancellor from 1986-97, said Sam Walton was not very smooth when he first started talking.
“I still remember him mumbling a little bit, and he said, ‘I just can’t talk like this,’ and he reaches behind him and put the Walmart cap on and he became a silver-tongued devil after that,” Ferritor said. “He held court. It was something to behold.”
Raymond Burns, the president of the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce, was among those who listened to Walton, Tyson and the others talk.
“To me, that’s where history was made, and that’s when the Council became real,” Burns said.
The airport, which was envisioned as something to replace the Fayetteville Municipal Airport as the region’s primary facility, was always a front burner topic during the congressional field hearing and in the years that followed.
However, the first big regional infrastructure successes that involved the Council were highways. In 1995, a four-lane, 10-mile section of U.S. 71 was widened from I-40 to Mountainburg, shortening the drive to Fayetteville, and then $50 million was spent to build U.S. 412 from Siloam Springs to Springdale. The 412 project finished up in 1996.
All the while, more and more people were getting behind the airport. Van Laningham, a former journalist, was hired by Lindsey in 1992. Van Laningham was ready to contribute and Lindsey unintentionally made it difficult at first.
“We had a meeting with engineers on the layout of the airport, and he knew more about the plan than the guys who wrote it,” Van Laningham said. “The second meeting was with the airport finance guys, and he knew more about their plan than they did. And the third meeting was about the Onward Airport campaign, and I thought, ‘Great I can contribute to this.’ Same thing happened. Not five minutes into the meeting it was clear that he knew more about it than anyone.”
Indeed, Lindsey was the perfect hire because he knew more about everything than everyone else whether the topic was highways, airports or water projects.
“I truly believe he reads the Federal Register at night just for fun,” Burns said. “He knows where all the nooks and crannies are. He knew what it would take to get a project like the airport done. It was his intelligence and Carol’s persistence that got it done.”
It didn’t hurt that Lindsey had major support from Alice Walton, who was the first chair of the Northwest Arkansas Council, and Hammerschmidt, who retired from Congress and replaced Alice Walton as chair in 1993. For the next 13 years, Uvalde Lindsey and Hammerschmidt guided the Council’s work.
Alice Walton is best known for her support of XNA and building Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, but she probably doesn’t get enough credit for encouraging the construction of U.S. 412 in Northwest Arkansas, several members of the Northwest Arkansas Council said.
“She’ll say the higher accomplishment was the airport, but let’s not forget she did a lot for getting 412,” said Mark Simmons, one of the Council’s charter members.
Airport, better highways, more water
A new round of infrastructure successes started with the arrival of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in November 1998.
Thousands awaited Air Force One, carrying President Bill Clinton to Arkansas to celebrate its opening.
In January 1999, a four-lane divided highway from Mountainburg to Fayetteville replaced a section of U.S. 71 that had been described by Reader’s Digest as one of the nation’s most dangerous highways.
In mid-1999, the Benton/Washington Regional Public Water Authority, commonly referred to as “Two-Ton,” began treating Beaver Lake water and delivering it via a 70-mile pipeline to small towns and rural customers in Benton and Washington counties. The Council played a role in obtaining federal funding for that project.
With water being pumped, U.S. 412 and U.S. 71 much improved and airlines taking more than 350,000 regional airport passengers a year to destinations, the Council was at a crossroads. In short, what next?
“We had a council meeting at James at the Mill about whether we should declare victory and go home,” Van Laningham said. “We decided to keep the effort going. We’d made too much progress. Everyone wanted to continue.”
In its 25 years, the Council brought regional ideas focused on infrastructure, economic development and education.
Among the biggest was the Council’s 2001 study by a Kansas City firm that proposed a future $1.34 billion grid network of highways.
In 2002, the Council released the findings of a commissioned economic development study of Northwest Arkansas, presenting those findings to a state legislative committee.
The study showed Tyson Foods, Walmart and J.B. Hunt Transport Services would continue to enjoy healthy growth, but probably not at the same amazing clip. Lindsey described what the study showed to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter after the meeting.
“You expect an economic development study to tell you to go out and recruit companies, but that’s not what this study told us,” Lindsey said. "It told us we’ve got to give our people the skills they need to be more productive. Also, it says we need to put more research into growing more industries."
By then, Northwest Arkansas was being recognized as an economic powerhouse. Led by the growth of Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and Walmart suppliers, the Milken Institute put Northwest Arkansas atop its list of the nation’s Best Performing Cities in 2003.
The remarkable leadership of Hammerschmidt and Lindsey was approaching its end.
In 2005, Lindsey and Hammerschmidt announced they’d be leaving the Council and the organization implemented a new chairman’s system. Instead of the same individual leading the Council year after year, leaders such as Jim Walton, John A. White, John Tyson, Kirk Thompson and Lee Scott began serving one-year stints as “presiding co-chairman.” The same system continues to be used today, providing the organization with a constant infusion of new ideas and fresh approaches to the most pressing regional issues of the day.
Lindsey, who was later elected as a state representative and then state senator, was replaced by Fayetteville native Mike Malone in January 2006, and Malone remains the Council’s president and CEO.
By 2007 and into 2008, an economic recession began impacting the nation, and its strong effect was felt across Northwest Arkansas. Council leaders saw the downturn as an opportunity to plan for when the economy improved, and the Council hired a consultant in February 2010 to develop a new strategic economic plan.
“This is an acknowledgment that we need to be correctly aligned so that when the economy comes back, we’re ready to break out,” Malone told local media outlets.
Expanded regional role
With assistance from Main Street Services of Atlanta, the Council spent much of 2010 planning for a new, bigger way of operating, announcing a new five-year strategic plan in 2011. The Council added staff and began pursuing more than 50 strategic actions related to education, economic development, infrastructure expansion, and community vitality.
The challenges were enormous: Create a regional brand, increase college graduates, help high school students earn diplomas, figure out how to build more highways, establish a wayfinding system, assist downtowns, promote healthy eating and exercise, help local employers interested in expanding their companies, recruit new companies to the region and tell the story of Northwest Arkansas to anyone interested in hearing it.
There were big successes as statewide voters approved a sales tax to build highways, a wayfinding system was installed in seven cities, and a regional brand was used to share why Northwest Arkansas is “Great for Business. Great for Life.”
Additionally, local employers expanded, out-of-state companies learned about Northwest Arkansas and programs were created to increase college degrees and reduce high school dropouts.
Most of that work was completed in four years, so the Council early this year established a new three-year plan, one that focuses on improving Northwest Arkansas’ workforce, attracting talent to the region and improving infrastructure.
There are aspects of the plan related to place-making, developing the next generation of regional leaders and continuing to help newcomers as they learn more about living in the region.
“The five-year plan was an incredible win for the region,” said Ted Abernathy, an economic consultant who helped the Council and its partners develop the three-year plan. “The statistics about job creation, wages, educational attainment and so many other things show the plan worked and most of the goals were achieved. When something is working, you keep doing it, and that’s what the next three-year plan sets out to do with some additions in a few key work areas.”
Amid highway upgrades, airport construction, and the pursuit of economic development goals, the Council’s work to bring people together to improve Northwest Arkansas is the organization’s top accomplishment. Regional collaboration remains a priority.
“This is an excellent place to live and work, and it’s moved from nobody heard of it to being recognized more often as Northwest Arkansas,” Ferritor said. “The commitment to make it a better place to live has been, without measure, the reason we are the community we are. It wouldn’t have happened, or it wouldn’t have happened nearly as fast, without the Northwest Arkansas Council.”