Forecast: Northwest Arkansas Economy Should Continue Solid Performance

Northwest Arkansas’ steady economic performance in 2017 should continue this year “so long as the national economy holds up,” a University of Arkansas economist predicts.

Mervin Jebaraj, the director of the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research, predicted the solid year at Business Forecast 2018, an annual luncheon organized by the center. The event’s keynote speaker was Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute.

Jebaraj gave “The Arkansas Economy in 2018: Can It Get Any Better Than This?” presentation before about 1,100 Northwest Arkansas and state business leaders in Rogers. The event is widely considered one the state’s most important gatherings of business people.

Jebaraj highlighted the impressive business statistics that have become so consistent in Northwest Arkansas, including the region’s remarkably low 2.5 percent unemployment rate, its continuing job creation and its $56,000 per capita personal income. He predicted the region’s low unemployment rate will continue and Benton and Washington counties are likely to see 6,000 of the 11,000 jobs that will be created statewide.

Yet, there are challenges and opportunities and Jebaraj described them. He noted the region’s need for better, more affordable childcare, the need to improve educational attainment, the need to increase the number of business startups, and the need for more affordable housing.

While the $230,000 average home price is well below average home prices in most areas of the U.S., the Northwest Arkansas price is up significantly from five years ago, Jebaraj said.

He also noted how important the economies of Northwest Arkansas and Jonesboro are to the state’s overall economy.

Jebaraj and Milken said there are opportunities to pursue more research funding that could lead to additional business growth in Northwest Arkansas.

Milken noted that the academic research and development dollars that flowed in 2015 to the University of Wisconsin ($1.1 billion), Duke University ($1 billion) and the University of Texas ($650 million) far exceeded what was received at the University of Arkansas ($130 million). More research in Arkansas would lead to more commercialization, creating jobs in Northwest Arkansas and statewide, Milken said.

Milken’s wide ranging speech touched on everything from Seattle’s solid economy despite losing Boeing jobs years ago to how San Diego used the University of California at San Diego to lead an economic surge in that city. He said San Diego over two decades had so much success with medical research that the more than 130 biotech companies that exist in the city today are more than in any place in the nation.

Milken said successful regions are able to attract and retain workforce talent, create vibrant communities, focus on technology advances and create business hubs centered around research universities.