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'You ain't seen nothin' yet.' (economic growth in Northwest Arkansas)

NW Leaders Say Next 10 Years Will Overshadow Past

THOUGH NORTHWEST Arkansas faces many daunting problems associated with its explosive growth, its future looks even brighter--so bright, in fact, that most business leaders expect the next decade to overshadow the phenomenal growth of the past 10 years.

"This is really just the tip of the iceberg," says Kirk Elsass |pronounced EL-saw~, vice president of Lindsey & Associates, the area's largest real estate company. "While we've had tremendous growth over the last few years, it's really going to take off when we get things like Highway 71 and 412 and the airport finished. We haven't even seen the boom yet."

Northwest Arkansas is effectively tackling its biggest problem: infrastructure, particularly with U.S. Highways 71 and 412 and the planned construction of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. As infrastructure improves, area leaders want to focus their attention on regional planning, attracting more state funding and improving the lines of communication with state government in Little Rock.

"I really can't see anything to hold us back but ourselves," says John Lewis, president of The Bank of Fayetteville. "We'll have the infrastructure in place, we're looking at all the aspects that could stop growth and trying to remove the impediment to the quality of the growth. We're on the ascension and that becomes irreversible, and we're going to have to do something stupid to stop it."

Transportation Help Under Way

In conquering its lacking infrastructure, the region has seen U.S. Highway 71 from Bella Vista to Fayetteville completed, while construction is under way extending the highway to Interstate 40 near Alma. Expansion of U.S. Highway 412 from Springdale to Siloam Springs has begun, and its completion will link the area with Oklahoma's Cherokee Turnpike and provide better access to Tulsa.

The ball is also rolling on the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which will provide the region with much-needed improvement in air transportation. Presently, the area is serviced only by commuter lines to Fayetteville's Drake Field or charter flights at the other smaller regional airports; no jet passenger or cargo service is available.

The federal Rural Development Authority recently announced plans to pump $28 million into the Two-Ton water project, which will provide an adequate water supply to the western part of Washington and Benton counties.

Smaller but just as important local infrastructure improvements are also in the works, including the expansion of state Highway 102 and U.S. Highway 71B to five lanes between Rogers and Bentonville.

These projects not only will provide a boon in terms of new construction jobs, they will also allow the region to continue a growth spurt threatened by a present lack of infrastructure. Indeed, many area business leaders believe the best is yet to come, that the area has grown in spite of its infrastructure, not because of it, and once it is in place the floodgates will open.

"The next 10 years are going to be even brighter than the last five years," says Ron Montgomery, president of Nabholz Construction Corp. in Rogers.

There is more to this than simple braggadocio.

Estimates put the two-county population at more than 300,000 by the year 2000, following present growth trends of more than 20 percent every 10 years. Most believe that once the major infrastructure TABULAR DATA OMITTED projects are completed, the growth rate will increase exponentially.

Traditionally, growth tends to follow infrastructure, as already evidenced by the development along the U.S. 71 bypass from Bella Vista to Fayetteville. Much of the region's growth has been along this corridor. The expansion of U.S. 412 and the completion of the Two-Ton project and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport near Highfill, due west of Lowell, promise to continue this growth trend west.

However, some area leaders complain that the new infrastructure comes years too late and that when the major projects are finally completed they will be outdated because of the population increases. This, they say, threatens to suppress that growth and prosperity.

Increased Funding Sought

To offset that, many leaders are calling for increased financial assistance from the state not only to accommodate the future growth, but also to nurture it. That, they say, will benefit the entire state.

"I think that the highway department needs to continue to pay special attention to those explosive growth areas like northwest Arkansas," says Raymond Burns, executive director of the Rogers Chamber of Commerce. "If you can't move the traffic efficiently, you strangle the growth. If you do that, you cut off the income, which cuts from the funds for new roads."

Lee Zachary, executive director of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, says, "What needs to be said to the legislature is that most of our business is not competing with someone else in Arkansas. We're shipping stuff out of here and bringing the money back in. Everything we're doing is adding to the treasury of the state of Arkansas and anything we do will help them."

It is not just the region's highways that are lagging. For example, the Rogers School District adds 400-500 new students each year, enough to fill an entire school, meaning a new facility needs to be built every year simply to keep up with the growth.

Area residents have realized the need. Recently, voters in Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville passed millage increases to pay for new facilities. Still, while several new schools have been constructed, ground broken on others and existing facilities expanded, the area school districts face a future overcrowding problem.

To complicate this, a general feeling exists throughout northwest Arkansas that state funds directed for the area aren't in line with the region's contributions to the state's coffers. There may be some merit to this argument.

For example, former state Rep. Dick Barclay of Rogers recently formed a taxpayers group to push for more equitable funding for Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) in Rogers and Bentonville. Barclay says NWACC received only $45,654 from the state in 1992 while Phillips County Community College in Helena received nearly $4.5 million although both have an equal number of students.

Even so, Barclay admits there are problems associated with obtaining increased funds from the state.

"There's a limited amount of public funds, so no one is going to get everything they need, and this is aggravated in this area by the fact that we have good growth," he says. "There's also the sense in the rest of the state that we have all the money up here so we don't need a lot of state money and the poorer parts do, which of course is not according to state law."

Lack of Communication

Much of the area's problem with state funding can be attributed to a lack of communication between the region and the state capital. For years, leaders say, central Arkansas was oblivious to the growth the region was experiencing and is just now starting to take notice. Part of the blame, they say, also lies with northwest Arkansas, which traditionally has associated itself with southwestern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma because of their proximity. Tulsa, for example, is almost half the distance that Little Rock is to the region.

But this trend appears to be changing.

"We've got to open better lines of communication between central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas if we want to continue to grow like we have," Barclay says. "We need their help, and they need ours because of our contribution to the state."

Burns says, "The more we can tell people down there about what's going on up here, the better. I think there is a definite lack of understanding about what our needs are up here, but the situation is getting better."

Another trend that promises to help the area sustain its growth is the breaking down of the traditional rivalries between the individual communities, with them working instead as a region.

"Where there used to be a lot of rivalry between the communities, you now see a lot of regional cooperation," says David Matthews, a lawyer and former state representative from Lowell. "It is a very cohesive group."


This shift is spelled out by such regional cooperative efforts as the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, the Northwest Arkansas Council, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and plans for a regional landfill, to name a few.

But charting the region's course, some say, is still not up to necessary levels.

"We need to do a better job of planning for the future, not only as individual communities but as a region," says Uvalde Lindsey, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council. "Unless we properly plan for the future as a region, taking advantage of economies of scale and power in numbers, we'll choke on our own growth."

Lindsey points to two advantages of regional planning. Not only does it help the area solve its problems efficiently by utilizing economies of scale, but it also gives the region more political clout in the state because of its sheer numbers. This, in turn, can lead to more state aid in dealing with future problems.

Some Snags Abound

While the future looks bright, some snags abound -- such as deciding which direction the region should go and how.

To wit, the Fayetteville Planning Commission recently rejected unanimously the city's 2010 General Land Use Plan for the city for the next 20 years. The plan, seven years in the making, was based on a small-scale "village concept" for the city. Planners complained that they could not understand the plan and that it was too ambiguous and too vague to deal with the future problems faced by the city.

But rather than scrapping the plan altogether, planners realized the need for a comprehensive document to guide the city's growth for the next 20 years, and they have taken steps to come up with an acceptable alternative. They understand, like many other region leaders, that they must plan today for the problems that can hinder the area's growth.

Northwest Projects Due by Year 2000

1994 -- Expansion of U.S. Highway 412 to four lanes from Springdale to Siloam Springs expected to be complete.

1996 -- Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport expected to be in operation.

2000 -- Expansion of U.S. Highway 71 to four lanes from Alma to Fayetteville expected to be complete.
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Article Details
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Author:Tobler, Christopher
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 25, 1993
Previous Article:Business climate ranks high.
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