Report: Housing needed in downtowns

Posted: February 2, 2018 at 1:05 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Bradley Morris (left) of Rogers and Denver Smith of Bentonville enjoy coffee Thursday at Onyx Coffee in Bentonville. Downtowns in Northwest Arkansas continue to experience strong population growth and increased demand for residential and commercial development, according to officials.

Northwest Arkansas needs accessible housing options as downtown populations grow and demand development, according to a Walton Family Foundation report.

The foundation announced it will commission a year-long study on workforce housing and long-term housing growth in Northwest Arkansas.

Downtown demographics

^Bentonville^Fayetteville^Rogers^Siloam Springs^Springdale

2016 population^4,167^1.970^398^252^2,270

2010-16 annual population growth rate^1.1%^2.9%^0.8%^1.2%^1.5%

Median age^33.9^31.8^35^31.3^28.1

Median household income^$35,119^$19,228^$36,761^$35,641^$29,908

Total businesses^451^648^254^101^278

Total employees^24,188^5,559^1,824^562^5,228

Unemployment rate^4.2%^1.5%^3.1^2.9%^6%

Percent of population with bachelor’s degree or higher^26%^42%^21%^25%^8%

Source: Walton Family Foundation

Maps showing downtown Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs, and Springdale.

The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas complied the 71-page report released Thursday.

The resurgence of downtowns has been the effort of many — philanthropists, private developers and municipalities, said Karen Minkel, the foundation’s home region program director.

“It’s been a true regional effort,” she said, explaining the study provides all the stakeholders a look into the downtowns’ current situations as well as a sense of their future.

The study, “Measuring the Vitality of Downtowns in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Springdale,” explains the impact of the foundation’s work and implementation of plans from 2012 to 2017.

The study didn’t surprise researchers as much as it confirmed what was known, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the center.

The cities with the strongest downtowns were the cities with downtown plans longer, he said.

“The ones that got their plans later are catching up, but are still doing well comparatively,” Jebaraj said.

Bentonville and Fayetteville adopted plans in 2004. Siloam Springs adopted its plan in 2014 with Springdale and Rogers following in 2015.

Bentonville has the largest downtown resident population at 4,100, and Fayetteville has the fastest growth rate at 2.9 percent, according to the report. Both cities reported the largest number of building permits for residential and commercial developments.

Residential sale prices rose in all five downtowns over the study’s five-year period, an early trend that may limit residents’ ability to live downtown in the future, according to the foundation.

Bentonville had the highest increase per square foot at 207.5 percent while Fayetteville had the lowest increase at 12.9 percent, according to the report. Prices per square foot increased by 104.5 percent in Rogers, 47.5 percent in Springdale and 31.5 percent in Siloam Springs.

Low vacancy exists across the downtowns, indicating a demand for space, Jebaraj said. However, the demand for downtown space is increasing faster than new space is being supplied, which causes lease costs to increase.

“We want low vacancy rates and want lease rates to stay the same,” he said. “It’s difficult.”

As Northwest Arkansas continues to be a desirable place to live, the housing prices will continue to increase, which will make it more challenging to have a diverse population — including diversity in income levels, Minkel said.

One of the foundation’s strategies is to create a sense of place through quality of life initiatives and amenities accessible to all, she said.

“Part of why you have a vibrant community is because you have diverse representation,” Minkel said.

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said if there’s a return on investment, the free market will create a supply to satisfy the demand.

“Philosophically, it’s a compliment to Bentonville that people are willing to live downtown and pay more for it than it previously was,” Mc-Caslin said.

The foundation’s planned housing study will include an analysis of the region’s needs, a plan as well as recommendations for options for residents with a range of income levels. The recommendations will focus on downtown, according to the foundation.

“Measuring the Vitality of Downtowns” and the announcement of the housing study follows a $250,000 grant the foundation awarded the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design for the Housing Northwest Arkansas initiative.

The grant is paying for an advanced design studio on housing design research and prototypes this semester; a design competition for mixed-use housing plans, including live-work units in Bentonville; and a symposium in Fayetteville and Bentonville this weekend on housing policy, finance, design, development and construction in attainable and mixed-use housing.

The foundation also recently announced a $400,000 one-year grant to Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer and property manager to assess the availability of exhibition, performance space, studio area and affordable housing for artists in Benton-ville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale.

Only about 10 percent of artists are able to make enough money to live solely on their creative pursuits, yet artists are a key contributor to a rich community, Wendy Holmes, vice president of consulting and strategic partnerships for Artspace, said Tuesday.

“They’re what make people want to stay, and they’re what creates the soul of the community,” she said.

The Community Development Corporation of Bentonville/Bella Vista is developing schematic designs for four auxiliary dwelling units in downtown Bentonville through the foundation’s Design Excellence Program with a $120,000 grant.

Melissa Gute can be reached at mgute@nwadg.com or on Twitter@NWAMelissa.