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 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.