Thursday, February 7, 2013

Nothing Left To Chance

By Matthew Tester, Project Manager. 

It is easy to understand why some communities are less aggressive than others with their economic development efforts – they’ve never had to work for it. Serendipity has dropped a whale of an economic engine in their midst – be it a research university, a major employer, or some boon of geography or climate that brings an endless stream of trade or tourists. Growth and prosperity abound. Jobs grow, income ticks up, schools thrive, campaigns get funded, and amenities appear. The whale and the bounty it brings become interwoven in the community’s identity, and its presence is taken for granted. The community seems invincible. 

Then, over time, laziness, arrogance, or some combination of the two creeps in. To paraphrase a popular quote, they were born on third base but think they hit a triple. When disaster strikes – the whale shrinks or disappears – there is no plan in place to keep the community moving forward. 

Northwest Arkansas would be forgiven it were one of those places. Walmart – one of capitalism’s great success stories – began and remains headquartered in the region, along with two other major multinational firms – Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt. Together, these firms comprise a magnet for suppliers, talent, and investment that few communities could hope to rival. The Northwest Arkansas region has thrived with their presence, enjoying many of the positive trends mentioned above. Community and economic development has required little encouragement and the area prospered for years without a coordinated comprehensive regional economic development effort.* 

With such a recipe for complacency, it is a welcome surprise to see just how completely this region has embraced proactive economic development in recent years. Not only do they have a plan, they have put the people and resources in place to see it implemented. Following a Market Street-led strategy process in 2010-2011, the Northwest Arkansas Council has emerged as a force for economic development, serving as the lead implementer of the Regional Development Strategy. From a staff of one, it has grown to a seven-person professional staff, and also presides over a number of goal area councils taking the lead on implementing portions of the plan. 

The region’s hard work is evident in the breadth of new initiatives and accomplishments it can boast: 

• The Northwest Arkansas Council has completed a complete re-branding and website overhaul; 

• Goal area councils, which engage the broader community, have been launched; 

• EnergizeNWA (, a regional initiative to promote healthy lifestyles, was seeded with a $400,000 donation from a regional partner organization; 

• GraduateNWA (, a joint effort of several organizations and chambers of commerce, was launched to increase the number of people in the region with college degrees; 

• The first Northwest Arkansas Diversity Summit was held in November 2012; 

• Bonds for high priority transportation projects were approved by voters; and 

• A program funding internships for college students at local small businesses was launched 

It is refreshing to watch this kind implementation activity even while the “whales” of Northwest Arkansas continue to thrive. The area’s leaders have realized that chance favors the prepared, and are refusing to rest on the assumption that the status quo will hold. Too many communities have learned the hard way that it will not. 

* - There were many local chambers and EDOs in the region carrying out proactive economic development programming at varying degrees, but no formally coordinated, regional effort was present. Northwest Arkansas is characterized by multiple cities – Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers, Lowell, Springdale, Bella Vista, Siloam Springs – with no single jurisdiction being the dominant economic engine. As such, regionalism is critical but also difficult.