New Highway Investment Will Improve Trip to XNA

Northwest Arkansas leaders and the Arkansas Department of Transportation earlier today celebrated the competition of one of the biggest highway projects in state history.

The first 4.5 miles of the future U.S. 412 bypass, which will be known as Arkansas Highway 612 for now because the section doesn't connect to U.S. 412, cost $100.6 million and was completed a full year ahead of schedule. It connects to Interstate 49 near the J.B. Hunt Transport Services headquarters in Lowell and heads west from there.

 Those headed east on the new Arkansas Highway 612 will use a series of bridges and ramps before heading north or south on Interstate 49. The new highway should be open to traffic later this month.

Those headed east on the new Arkansas Highway 612 will use a series of bridges and ramps before heading north or south on Interstate 49. The new highway should be open to traffic later this month.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony, led by Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Scott Bennett and all five Arkansas Highway Commission members, brought more than 150 people to the new 612. Those who attended were among the very first people to drive on the new stretch of highway, but it won't officially open to traffic until later this month. The target date is April 30.

The construction of Arkansas Highway 612 was the most expensive of the 36 projects funded by a half-cent sales tax approved by Arkansas voters in 2012. The Arkansas Department of Transportation maintains a website to provide Arkansans with current information about the 36 projects funded by the half-cent sales tax.

By all accounts, the magnitude of the 612 project is remarkable. It took 4.5 million pounds of structural steel, 4.4 million pounds of reinforced steel, 35,000 tons of asphalt and 22,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the highway lanes, 14 bridges, ramps, overpasses, and other highway components.

Once it opens to traffic, the four-lane divided highway will improve the drive to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport for motorists in Fayetteville, Springdale and Lowell. Those motorists currently rely on Arkansas highways 112 and 264 to head toward XNA, and 612 will be a nice upgrade over those two-lane routes.

 Former Arkansas Highway Commission member Bobby Hopper, who has a the state's only highway tunnel named in his honor, was among those who attended today's event to celebrate the completion of Arkansas Highway 612. The roadway is the future U.S. 412 Bypass of Springdale, but others sections must be built to connect it to U.S. 412.

Former Arkansas Highway Commission member Bobby Hopper, who has a the state's only highway tunnel named in his honor, was among those who attended today's event to celebrate the completion of Arkansas Highway 612. The roadway is the future U.S. 412 Bypass of Springdale, but others sections must be built to connect it to U.S. 412.

While the new highway connects I-49 to Arkansas 112 for now, the long-term vision is for a four-lane, divided highway to run all the way to the regional airport. The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority earlier this month authorized a study that would evaluate making the road more than an XNA access road and determine whether it can provide a larger regional benefit to the Northwest Arkansas highway network.

Impressive population growth in Northwest Arkansas has dramatically increased car traffic in the region. New investments in highways such as widening I-49 to six lanes between Bentonville and Fayetteville are certainly providing a benefit to the region, but the need for new investments into infrastructure and transportation options is high to keep up with growth.

There's an interest in expanding the availability of public transit in the region, and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission has studied the possibility of making major improvements to Arkansas Highway 112 between Bentonville and Fayetteville. That study, which included multiple options for where the new version of 112 would be improved and the possibility of relocating some sections of it, showed the improvements would cost more than $100 million.

Northwest Arkansas Ranked In Top 5 Best Places to Live

A national publication placed Northwest Arkansas high on its list of Best Places to Live in the U.S.

No. 5 Northwest Arkansas, which is referred to as Fayetteville on the list because it’s the metropolitan area's largest city, finished in the Top 5 for the third year in row.

The new ranking was made public by U.S. News & World Report and media outlets across the U.S. earlier today.

Northwest Arkansas ranked No. 5 on the 2017 U.S. News list.

"When deciding on a place to settle down, it's important to understand that where a person lives can impact their well-being," said Kim Castro, executive editor at U.S. News. "U.S. News created the Best Places to Live to highlight areas across the country that have the characteristics residents are looking for, including steady job growth and affordability. The top-ranked places are areas where citizens can feel the most fulfilled socially, physically and financially."

Northwest Arkansas (the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area) also fared well on a second U.S. News list made public today, ranking No. 8 among the 25 Best Affordable Places to Live in the U.S.

To arrive at its overall Best Places to Live ranking this year, U.S. News compared metropolitan statistical areas’ job markets, giving weight to unemployment rates and average salaries.

Other factors included what U.S. News called a Value Index, combining the median household income and the cost of living.

The region’s quality of life, which took into consideration such factors as crime rate, the quality of education and health care, was a third primary factor.

Finally, U.S. News looked at how many people are moving to the region compared to those who move away (net migration) and then the publication created a Desirability Index, using an online poll to ask people where they’d most like to live and using the responses to rank desirability.

Devon Thorsby, the real estate editor for U.S. News, said the publication takes a look at many data points because "so much goes into the decision-making process of moving to a new part of the country."

"One place may rank highly for a slightly different reason than the place that ranks just above or below it," Thornsby wrote in an email.

"It’s reasonable to assume that most places in the Top 15 have strong job markets and are relatively affordable for their populations, as U.S. residents have noted those as two of the most important factors when deciding where they want to live. But changes from year to year do affect the rankings. Fayetteville, for example, maintained its spot at No. 5 this year because it manages to consistently attract new residents without increasing the cost of living disproportionately with household income, among other positive data points about the area. San Jose, on the other hand, continues to grow costlier and has also seen a drop off in population growth over a five-year period, which contributes to its fall from No. 3 last year to No. 17 this year."

The Top 10 on the 2018 U.S. News Best Places to Live ranking were Austin; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Denver; Des Moines; Northwest Arkansas; Portland, Ore.; Huntsville, Ala.; Washington, D.C.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Seattle.

The U.S. News information draws national attention to Northwest Arkansas because publications such as CNBC, the Orange County Register, the Arizona Republic and dozens of other media outlets publish stories about how the metropolitans areas were ranked.

Trails Drive $137 Million into Northwest Arkansas Economy, Study Shows

With an increasing number of locals and tourists taking advantage of its network of natural-surface trails and shared-use paved paths, bicycling provided $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas last year.

According to three new studies shared today by the Walton Family Foundation, the region reaped positive economic, social and health benefits while managing to keep its trail building costs lower than many regions in the U.S.

“While the energy generated by trails and paved paths is palpable across Northwest Arkansas, these findings validate cycling as a regional economic engine that supports local businesses, attracts tourists and builds healthier communities,” said Tom Walton, Home Region Program Committee chair.

The first study, commissioned in partnership with PeopleForBikes, showed bike tourism is a significant economic driver with visitors spending $27 million at Northwest Arkansas businesses last year. More than 90,000 mountain bike tourists visited Northwest Arkansas last year, the study shows.

The report also showed locals reported spending more than $21 million in 2017 on bicycling goods and events. Many residents cite proximity to bicycle infrastructure as a major consideration when deciding where to live, work or locate businesses.

Residents’ cycling habits are also above the nation as a whole. According to the study, 27 percent of locals rode bikes six or more days in the last year—a rate 11 percentage points higher than the national average. That level of activity contributed about $86 million in annual health benefits last year.

The foundation has partnered with PeopleForBikes to offer the study’s templates free of charge to cities and regions across the country. This will be a resource for communities interested in measuring the economic benefits of cycling in a standardized way by utilizing the Northwest Arkansas study as a national industry model. The templates will be made available by PeopleForBikes later this year. 

“Northwest Arkansas is a shining example of the positive impact cycling can have on a community,” said Steuart Walton. “We hope to inspire other towns and cities by sharing the lessons and impact we’ve observed, such as the importance of quality miles over quantity of miles, the proximity of trails to downtowns and advocating for female and youth cyclists.” 

Over the last 10 years, the foundation has provided $74 million to support the construction of 163 miles of natural-surface trails and paved paths in Northwest Arkansas.

To measure the impact of the investments, the foundation commissioned a second study, analyzing trail usage across the region. It showed a 24 percent increase in average annual bicycle usage and a 10 percent increase in average annual pedestrian usage over the last two years. Comparing cycling levels per capita, Northwest Arkansas reports higher daily cyclist trail use than bike-friendly areas such as San Francisco. While the region’s trails and paved paths are used for both practical and recreational use, the study showed the highest levels of use by cyclists and pedestrians in densely populated and low-to-medium income areas. 

To obtain benchmark data on policy, funding, design trends and best practices for similar trail programs, the foundation’s third study evaluated information from eight peer cities and two aspirational ones — Austin and Minneapolis — against data from Northwest Arkansas.

When compared to cities with vibrant greenway trail programs, Northwest Arkansas ranked in the lower third for its trail costs. While the average cost of trails in peer cities was $313.75 per linear foot, Northwest Arkansas reported an average cost of $217.09 per linear foot. 

Outside of Northwest Arkansas, the foundation is supporting the development of a 30-mile expansion of the Big River Trail in the Arkansas Delta through its Home Region Program.

Additionally, Steuart Walton and Tom Walton have provided grant funding for trail building initiatives, such as a 16-mile natural-surface trail system in Hot Springs; a bike and skate park in Fort Smith; mountain biking and hiking trails in Eureka Springs; and a 12-mile natural-surface trail system at Camp Orr on the Buffalo River.

To ensure a quality riding experience, they have also provided funding for a maintenance program for the state’s designated International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) Epic Trails. With the maintenance investment, Arkansas is the only state in the nation with a professional maintenance crew. Last month, Steuart and Tom partnered with IMBA to announce new Trail Labs educational programming and matching Trail Accelerator grants to bring more trails across the U.S., with matching funding available to communities in the American Heartland. 

Leaders Celebrate Completion of Children's Northwest

Community leaders earlier today celebrated the completion of Arkansas Children’s Northwest at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Springdale.

The hospital, which includes the 233,613 square foot building on a 37-acre site in a western area of the city, opened Feb. 27. Hundreds of people gathered where hospital officials thanked donors, and community leaders discussed the building’s importance in fast-growing Northwest Arkansas.

 Students from Springdale's Walter Turnbow Elementary School opened today's ribbon cutting ceremony at Arkansas Children's Northwest by singing songs for the hundreds of people who attended.

Students from Springdale's Walter Turnbow Elementary School opened today's ribbon cutting ceremony at Arkansas Children's Northwest by singing songs for the hundreds of people who attended.

Marcy Doderer, president and CEO of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack were among those who spoke at today’s event. Those who attended included an impressive cross section of the region, and it included several state representatives and state senators as well as Northwest Arkansas mayors.

Doderer announced plans for the hospital in August 2015. The Gary George family donated the land, which is just west of Interstate 49. The plan was to have the project complete this year.

Donors pledged $80 million to help pay for the project, and many of those gifts came from Northwest Arkansas’ leading families, foundations and companies. The largest of those gifts included $15 million from the Tyson Family and Tyson Foods, $8 million from Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, $8 million from the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, $5 million from J.B. Hunt Transport Services and $5 million from Will Golf 4 Kids and the Color of Hope Gala.

The hospital has 24 inpatient beds, 30 rooms in the 24-hour emergency department and five operating rooms.

There remain other huge hospital expansion projects that are being pursued in Northwest Arkansas and they are all an important part of what's helping drive the Northwest Arkansas economy. The biggest of the other projects is at Mercy Northwest Arkansas where a plan to spend $247 million was announced in 2016. Mercy’s main hospital campus in Rogers is being improved and health clinics are opening in cities across the region.

Northwest Arkansas Joins Largest Metros in 2019

Northwest Arkansas ranked among the nation’s fastest-growing places in the most recent year, and a conservative estimate shows the region should soon be among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

 The Arkansas Startup Crawl, attended by hundreds of people interested in local craft beer and innovative companies, is an example of the increasing number of popular events that make living and working in Northwest Arkansas desirable. The office of Fayetteville's Metova, one of 11 stops on the tour, is shown in the picture.

The Arkansas Startup Crawl, attended by hundreds of people interested in local craft beer and innovative companies, is an example of the increasing number of popular events that make living and working in Northwest Arkansas desirable. The office of Fayetteville's Metova, one of 11 stops on the tour, is shown in the picture.

The Northwest Arkansas Council’s analysis of new U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, which were made public today, suggests Northwest Arkansas growth will easily reach that important Top 100 milestone by early 2019.

The new Census numbers, which show accelerated growth in Northwest Arkansas between July 2016 and July 2017, led the Council to adjust its previous timeline that had the region joining the Top 100 metropolitan statistical areas near the end of 2019.

While Northwest Arkansas is often ranked by magazines and other publications as one of the nation's best places to live, Ted Abernathy said being among the 100 largest metros will draw new attention. The Brookings Institution, for example, tracks the economies of the Top 100 metros with its Metro Monitor, and other organizations' research highlights the Top 100, too.

Moreover, some retailers, restaurants and other businesses limit the places they'll consider for expansions to the largest metros, and many people looking to advance their careers focus on those same 100 places, said Abernathy, the founder of Economic Leadership, a consultancy in North Carolina that helps states and communities develop economic and workforce development strategies. He's worked with the Northwest Arkansas Council over the years.

"It’s health indicators and quality of life and economic prosperity, and many look only at the Top 100," Abernathy said. "The great news about appearing on the lists is a whole lot of people are going to see that listing and inquire about Northwest Arkansas. From a  branding standpoint, it's going to be terrific. Being in the Top 100 is just special."

For now, the Census Bureau puts the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA at No. 104 in population, moving the region up one spot from a year earlier. Northwest Arkansas adds more people each year than many larger MSAs, meaning it will eclipse No. 103 Youngstown, Ohio; No. 102 Lancaster, Pa.; No. 101 Scranton, Pa.; and No. 100 Modesto, Calif., in the coming months.

Just as importantly, Northwest Arkansas ranked No. 14 in the nation in its growth rate between July 2016 and July 2017, adding almost 34 people a day. The Census Bureau report shows the MSA, which includes McDonald County in Missouri and Benton, Madison and Washington counties in Arkansas, had 537,463 residents on July 1, 2017.

“We saw the growth in employment and the labor force, so in ways the Census Bureau really confirms those numbers,” said Mervin Jebaraj, the director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research. “In addition to a growing economy, we have really nice things for a region our size, and that includes great restaurants, bars, museums, downtowns, parks, mountain bike trails and outdoor places. As we continue to invest in our region, and there’s no sign that will slow one bit, we can expect to see more and more growth like this.”

Indeed, strong indications were abundant that new Census data would validate the growth noted in regional reports over the past several months. Among the most notable were record-breaking passenger numbers at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in 2017, and a report from the Beaver Water District that showed customers’ consumption broke an all-time record. The water district, which provides drinking water to all of Northwest Arkansas’ largest cities, increased annual sales to 18.6 billion gallons. It was a 6 percent increase over Fiscal Year 2016.

Just as impressive as Northwest Arkansas’ overall growth was the population surge in Benton County, the home of Walmart, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Simmons Foods, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and hundreds of Walmart supplier offices. The Census estimates show 62 percent of the region’s new residents between July 2016 and July 2017 were in Benton County.

The region as a whole has witnessed massive quality-of-life investments over the past decade that spurred consistent population growth. The investments include the construction of Arvest Ballpark, the Razorback Regional Greenway, the Walmart AMP, the Scott Family Amazeum and a major renovation to Walton Arts Center. More projects are in the works, too, including investments in several downtown areas as well as the construction of TheatreSquared, a professional theatre company’s new home that’s going up in Fayetteville.

The Northwest Arkansas Council’s review and the Census Bureau population estimates reveal other interesting data points, showing how Northwest Arkansas growth stakes up to that of larger metropolitan areas.

Among those data points:

  • Faster than Oklahoma City, San Jose. Only 42 of the nation’s 383 MSAs added more people than Northwest Arkansas between July 2016 and July 2017. The 12,287 additional residents were more newcomers than arrived in the Louisville, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, San Jose and Memphis metropolitan areas.
  • Births far exceed deaths. The metropolitan area in that year had twice as many births as deaths. The average daily births were 20.5; deaths were 9.8.
  • Migrants lead growth. The majority of Northwest Arkansas’ new residents arrived from other states. Of the nearly 34 people per day added to the region's population, out-of-staters accounted for 18.8 per day; 4.4 people arrived from other countries.
  • 600,000 residents. The 28 additional people a day since 2010 put Northwest Arkansas on pace to reach 600,000 residents in 2023. If the growth of the past year were to continue at 34 people a day, the milestone will be achieved in mid-2022.
  • Tied with the Windy City. Northwest Arkansas’ 28 people a day were slightly more than the growth in Chicago, an MSA with 9.5 million residents. Northwest Arkansas growth from the 2010 Census to July 2017 exceeded Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Pictured at the top: The Walmart AMP, an outdoor music venue that opened in Rogers in 2014, is an example of impressive quality-of-life amenities added to the Northwest Arkansas landscape in the past decade.