egional partners will begin a new three-year work plan after the successful completion of almost every task described in the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy, the Northwest Arkansas Council announced today.
The three-year plan, unveiled at the Council’s winter meeting in Rogers, places priorities on strengthening the region’s workforce and regional employers’ connections to schools, upgrading the region’s utility and transportation infrastructure, and developing a new generation of Northwest Arkansas community leaders.
“We’re not restarting with a series of all new things in the new plan,” said Mike Malone, the Council’s president and CEO. “Instead, we’re adding key pieces, and we’re going to build on the work that we think has gone so well for the past four years.”
The Northwest Arkansas Council stepped up its regional role in January 2011, announcing the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy, a five-year blueprint for regional success. It focused on economic development, educational excellence, infrastructure, and community vitality.
The Council’s pursuit of that plan’s 16 objectives and 56 strategic actions with dozens of regional partners went so well that the Council’s Executive Committee in mid-2014 directed staff to wrap up that work about a year early and to prepare the new three-year strategy. The Council hired consultant Ted Abernathy to work with Council members, regional partners and Council staff on developing the new three-year plan.
The Northwest Arkansas population now exceeds 505,000 residents, increasing 7.5 percent since the strategy was announced. The region increased employment (up 9.3 percent since 2010), improved average annual wages (up 9.7 percent since 2009), and reduced unemployment (to 3.9 percent in November 2014). Additionally, the region’s metropolitan gross domestic product increased to $23.8 billion (up 29.8 percent since 2009).
Northwest Arkansas also improved its educational attainment, increasing the number of people age 25 or older who have a bachelor’s degree from 25.1 percent in 2010 to 27.9 percent in 2013. There also was an increase in interstate lane miles, and the number of paved trails for walkers, runners and cyclists has tripled since 2010.
“The five-year plan was an incredible win for the region,” Abernathy said. “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.”
The new plan calls for additional attention to be put toward workforce development to ensure that high school and college graduates are prepared for jobs that are in demand in Northwest Arkansas.
“We heard over and over in our conversations with Northwest Arkansas employers that we need to do more to ensure that graduates and workers have the types of skills necessary to meet our region’s economic demand,” said Mike Harvey, the Council’s chief operating officer. “We’re setting out to ensure that every graduate at every level is prepared to be an excellent, successful employee.”
The Council has a long, successful history of being a regional leader when it comes to improving Northwest Arkansas infrastructure. The Council played a primary role in the development of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, and it’s worked with partners to ensure that Northwest Arkansas’ energy needs are met, highway funding is provided, and the region’s public transportation system expands.
“We can’t imagine a scenario in which the Council won’t be working toward larger, regional infrastructure improvement goals,” Malone said. “Infrastructure has always been essential for our region’s growth.”
While there are leadership development actions in the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy, it will be more prominent in the new plan. The Council will be working with area chambers of commerce and other partners to ensure that a new generation of leaders are identified and then assisted as they look to take prominent roles with nonprofit organizations and local and state governments.
The long list of successes related to the recently completed development strategy includes the establishment of a regional employer retention and expansion (ERE) program, the creation of a regional brand and outreach program, the installation of a regional wayfinding system and the establishment of four education-related efforts (Reach Out NWA, Razor C.O.A.C.H., Graduate NWA, Northwest Arkansas Educational Consortium). In Northwest Arkansas, there’s a stronger emphasis on eating healthy foods, increasing access to places for physical activity, improving downtowns, upgrading highways and city streets, and protecting water quality. Each of those was described in the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy.