Hospitals, Venture Fund Make Our 2016 'Best' List

Every look at the future should start with at least some reflection on what happened in the recent past. There’s no better time to do that than at year’s end.

Northwest Arkansas in 2015 saw the opening of the Amazeum, a huge new jobs announcement by J.B. Hunt, a downtown Springdale project for Tyson Foods, the start of the Brightwater Culinary School and the beginning of U.S. 412 Bypass construction.

Have no fear — 2015 was a tough act to follow, but 2016 was solid. Those of us at the Northwest Arkansas Council picked a few of our “Best of Northwest Arkansas in 2016.” Here are our favorites in no particular order.

1. HOSPITAL EXPANSIONS

Mercy Northwest Arkansas announced in April that it would invest $247 million in expanding its health-care footprint in the region. That expansion, which started this year, includes new medical clinics, a new tower at its main hospital in Rogers and the hiring of 1,000 health-care workers. Meanwhile, Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville opened a five-story, 132,800-square-foot center focused on meeting the health-care needs of women and infants.

2. CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL

Construction on the 233,000-square-foot Arkansas Children’s Northwest started in Springdale, and the project received significant community support in 2016. A $15 million gift to help with construction came from Tyson Foods and the Tyson Family in August, and other major gifts came from Walmart, the Walmart Foundation, J.B. Hunt and the Walton Family Foundation. A topping-off ceremony was held in September. The 24-bed hospital is expected to open in January 2018.

3. WE'RE NO. 1, NO. 2 AND NO. 3

Northwest Arkansas gets mentioned often in rankings and lists published by Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, the Milken Institute and a few others who measure regions’ economies and quality of life. In 2016, Northwest Arkansas ranked No. 1 on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Affordable Places to Live list, No. 2 on Forbes’ ranking of Best Midsize Cities for Jobs, and No. 3 on a U.S. News & World Report ranking of Best Places to Live. But there were a few other high rankings for Northwest Arkansas that we won’t list here.

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4. JOBS

Information collected from 508 employers by the Northwest Arkansas chambers of commerce was shared by the Northwest Arkansas Council in March, showing employers expected to hire 3,161 people over three years. Those employers said they’d spend $336 million on expansions over the three years.

5. VENTURE CAPITAL

Bentonville’s NewRoad Capital Partners teamed up with Los Angeles-based Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors to create Northwest Arkansas’ largest investment fund. With $90 million available, the two companies will focus their investments in such areas as consumer packaged goods, retail, and health care. The Bentonville company’s portfolio includes Northwest Arkansas companies such as Acorn Influence, NOWDiagnostics, BlueInGreen and GrowthWise Group.

6. INTERSTATE 49 WIDENING

The region’s most important highway is undergoing a massive overhaul, and two major portions of the I-49 project were finished in 2016. At a cost of about $50 million, work to widen I-49 to six lanes from north Fayetteville to Wagon Wheel Road in Springdale was finished. There remain major I-49 interchanges to improve and I-49 sections in Benton County that must still be widened to six lanes. We're closer to six lanes from Bentonville to Fayetteville, but more work remains.

7. UNIVERSITY ENROLLMENT

The University of Arkansas made our 2015 "best of" list last year because of its record enrollment of 26,754 students in the Fall 2015. Guess what? We're listing UA again because the Fall 2016 enrollment was 27,194 students. Enrollment record-setters are automatic on this list.

8. WALTON ARTS CENTER

The $23 million expansion of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville was completed in late 2016. The project added 30,000 square feet to the facility. There’s a new atrium and major renovations to the Starr Theater.

9. KRAFT BUILDING

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art began transitioning the former Kraft Foods cheese factory in Bentonville into a contemporary art venue. The project in the 63,000-square-foot industrial building won’t be complete until 2018.

10. CYCLING

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) held its annual World Summit in Bentonville, drawing national attention to Northwest Arkansas. The region is being recognized more and more for its excellent mountain bike trails.