When Crystal Ude-Stall and her husband, Alan, relocated to Northwest Arkansas from their native Nebraska five years ago, they did so seeking the tranquility of an empty nest home by the water.
What they found was an exciting second act to their lives that has been anything but slow-paced, launching a Scooter’s Coffee franchise that has blossomed into three locations since 2018.
“Could we have started at any worse time? We had COVID, and now we have all of this crazy stuff that happens in the world,” Ude-Stall said with a laugh. “But we could see the potential of this community, and we thought it would be a great place. The founder of Scooter’s even came down and saw what was going on here, and he could see also that it was a growing area.”
The couple, who lives in Rogers, has also reveled in the area’s recreational amenities, which Ude-Stall says rounds out the quality-of-life picture in ways few other places can.
“The draw of the music, the bike paths, the outdoor activities, the independent restaurants, that’s what I get excited about,” she said. “There’s always something to do here. You can’t sit here and say, ‘Boy, I’m bored;’ at least, I can’t. You can go to something every night if you want to.”
Ude-Stall’s comments could have come straight from a regional chamber of commerce video, so closely do they reflect the hopes officials have long had for the region. And the Cornhusker entrepreneurs are not alone — the Northwest corridor’s pace of growth continues to capture attention, as ex-pats from Omaha to Ocala and Petaluma to Pittsburg continue to set a course for the Boston Mountains.
“NWA provides folks with an opportunity to pursue their goals, and I would say there’s multiple reasons for that,” said Caleb Talley, director of Startup Junkie Foundation in Fayetteville. “One, there’s a template. Folks had to be scrappy and build, because up in the Ozarks there were limited resources back in the day. Yet, you’ve got some of the biggest, most prominent companies in the world, built from nothing, here in Northwest Arkansas.
“Once those opportunities have grown, expanded, generated wealth and brought in talent, a number of other things feed off that. Arkansas, in general, can be [considered] a flyover state. When people think entrepreneurship, they think Silicone Valley or Boston, so there’s a movement Steve Case, founder of AOL, started calling ‘Rise of the Rest.’ Jeff Amerine, our founder, said we’re more like ‘Rise of the Best,’ because in order to grow and shine in middle America, you’ve got to be the best, and you’ve got to continue to recruit the best, and you’ve got to continue to enable and support the best in order to beget success.”
On May 26, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that again told the nation what Arkansans already know — that waves of modern-day prospectors continue to stream into the region seeking gold in them thar emerald hills.
Benton County led all counties in Arkansas in population growth since 2010, jumping 28.5 percent to 284,333 residents. Washington County grew by 21 percent to 245,871.
By comparison, Pulaski County, the anchor of the Central Arkansas metro, grew 4.3 percent to 399,125 people.
What’s even more telling about the NWA region is the rate at which it is generating jobs. According to data presented May 27 by the University of Arkansas Center for Business and Economic Research, the region has been responsible for all of the state’s net job growth over the past two years. Statewide, Arkansas created 15,000 jobs in that time period, overlaying almost exactly with the region’s rate of job growth.
“The opportunities are even more present right now, coming out of the pandemic,” said J.R. Shaw, executive vice president of the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce and executive director of Visit Rogers. “We’ve seen the way people work and the advances in technology. Every day, we hear people say they can live anywhere they want to from a work standpoint.
“We’re very attractive from a cost-of-living and cost-of-doing business perspective; we hear that all the time from people who walk into our office or people we interact with elsewhere. That’s a big plus for NWA, for Rogers and our cities, to have the quality of life that’s there.”
Shaw added such quality of place doesn’t just happen but is the result of strategic thought and collaborative planning on the part of all the communities in the corridor. This cooperation continues to pay dividends for the area, as a whole.
“The environment here has been built intentionally, and these things have gone a long way toward growing businesses, growing communities and creating destinations for our cities,” Shaw said. “It benefits everybody. When I say a destination, people always think of that just being for visitors, but it’s a destination for visitors as well as business investment and young families wanting to move and build a better life for themselves. It’s a destination for fill-in-the-blank. I think that’s what’s attracted business here; it’s what attracts locals and really, all of the above.”
With such a rapid influx comes challenges, not the least of which is the impact on the very feel of the place, an ethos that has played such a significant role in the area’s success to begin with.
Bill Rogers, president and CEO of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, said retaining community identity has remained a priority, even as cities have welcomed hordes of new residents.
“Our ethos has evolved,” he said. “For example, in Springdale schools, the largest school district in the state, there are 54 different languages spoken in the homes of our 23,000 students. You can’t help but change. We’ve continued to take this melting pot approach to our region, that we’re a friendly state, and this is a friendly place, and I think it’s holding its own.
“When you’re trying to attract top talent, you want to be a place people will come to and not leave once they get here, because they fall in love with the place. There’s no question that that’s happening here, and it’s a big part of how we’ve been able to keep that ethos.”
Of course, even the friendliest places on earth eventually will need to upgrade capacity and infrastructure, and to a person, these are listed as the central challenges for the region. Rogers said the best thing the communities in the area did to keep up with these needs is investing in themselves versus waiting for the feds to do it.
“There’s a recognition of the choke points, and this region has had exceptional leadership when it comes to identifying and plotting out solutions and securing municipal and regional solutions to those problems,” he said. “In Springdale alone, we’ve had more than $700 million in bonds issued in the last 20 years. Those are bonds that our voters went to the polls for, and we’ve never had one defeated.
“There was that recognition, certainly in the early days, that it was going to be difficult to get what we felt was our fair share of infrastructure dollars. Meanwhile, the need is not going away, and if we’re waiting on federal dollars to come build that road, it’s going to stifle our growth. So, we’re going to pay for it ourselves. That’s an approach the region has had no problem supporting, and that extends to fire stations and all the things municipalities have to do. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Housing is a particularly thorny issue, especially in the larger communities, said Suzett Sparks, managing broker with Lindsey & Associates in Rogers and a native of the area.
“The big thing with NWA is the price appreciation,” she said. “I just talked to an agent whose daughter bought a house in January, and it’s appreciated $65,000 since she bought it. My own daughter and son-in-law bought a house last January, 1,800 or 1,900 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths and a two-car garage, and they paid $258,000. The house across the street, very similar in size and finish, just sold for over $400,000. That’s in a year.”
Such economics are causing more people to look farther afield for housing. Elm Springs, Cave Springs, Tontitown, Centerton and other small communities are all attracting increased interest in their respective listings.
“Anything that’s centrally located, that’s prime, obviously,” Sparks said. “Then, as you get away from that central location, there’s more land, it’s less expensive to build, and developers are going to that area. Right now, we’re seeing Gentry, Pea Ridge and Bella Vista growing at a larger rate per capita than most areas in NWA.”
One phrase that keeps popping up in discussions about NWA is the well-worn concept that the region is the next Austin, Nashville, Raleigh or other boom area. Locals up here bristle at that phrase, even as they use it to their advantage to give the uninitiated a mental image of what’s going on up here.
We’re not the next anything, most will say; we’re the first, best and only Northwest Arkansas.
“We don’t want to be somebody else,” said Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. “We think we have things that a lot of other people don’t have.”
Clark said in studying these other areas, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret to maintaining the appeal of a boom town is not to resist change, but to invest in the mundane services and amenities — streets, sewer, etc. — that aren’t often discussed, but when lacking are always felt. For these, he gives city and area leadership high marks.
“I spent 12 years in elected office. I ran five statewide campaigns,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of leaders at various levels, and I would rate the mayors of all of these cities A-plus, and I would rate their city councils the same. Because the bottom line is, we’re getting it done. All the cities up here since 2000 have built a new high school, at least one, plus middle schools and elementary schools. All of them have built new hospitals or expanded their health care. And those are big issues in any community.”
Above all, he said, the cities here have not, and cannot, impede change because to do so is to impede progress.
“I moved to Austin, and I lived there from 1995 to 2005. While we were there, we could hear from the locals, ‘All these damn people moving in here from California and New York. We don’t like ῾em.’” he said. “‘They’re driving up housing costs. They can’t do that. They can’t change our town.’
“Well, change is hard for people. Necessary, but hard. We’re not poised to say we have control of every issue in the region or here in the city, but we’re poised to say we are working, and we are making progress each day. We acknowledge problems and then develop solutions that work today and will work for tomorrow.”