Competition for people, quality of life defines Northwest Arkansas

Posted: March 4, 2018 at 1:05 a.m.

Riders make their way through Rogers during a Square to Square Bicycle Fun Ride on the Razorback Regional Greenway.

Riders make their way through Rogers during a Square to Square Bicycle Fun Ride on the Razorback Regional Greenway.

Competition for space, for people and for recognition from outside Northwest Arkansas has both nurtured and divided the Northwest Arkansas' communities for more than a century. Now that competition unites the region instead, local officials and experts say.

The arena changed. Communities still work to outdo each other in cultural offerings, places to live and education, the pieces of daily life. But Northwest Arkansas residents and leaders have come together for regional achievements in transportation, health care and recreation, competing as one with the rest of the country to become the better place to live.

Susan Young, outreach coordinator for the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, said she's lived around Fayetteville all 58 years of her life and remembers seeing each of the area's largest cities as separate -- beads on highway strings with open pasture in between, each going its own way.

"I'm starting to shake each of the identities of each city for a big Northwest Arkansas identity," she said, pointing to the region's rapid growth and the arrival of attractions such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Each Sunday this month, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will take a look at how the region is growing and changing and what it means for the residents, whether they've lived here all their life or just arrived. The articles focus on the drive of competition, the constant push for success and the progress that has made this place the fifth best place in the U.S. to live, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Competitors appear

The competition among Northwest Arkansas communities began in earnest with the United States settlement in the 1820s, experts said. The country forcibly displaced Native Americans such as the Osage, who used the Ozarks for hunting, and settlers followed, said Brooks Blevins, a history professor with Missouri State University specializing in Ozarks history.

Several families stopped around Cane Hill in southwest Washington County, then formed groups that became Fayetteville and other towns. They spread out, rather than concentrating in one area, likely in search of creeks or springs and relatively flat land among the Boston Mountains that would be good for farming, said Young and Allyn Lord, Shiloh Museum director.

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"So you can see how people might have landed in a variety of places," Lord said, in contrast with, say, Little Rock, which consolidated at a central location on the Arkansas River.

Communities steadily grew, taking on their own identities.

Fayetteville was known for schools such as the Arkansas College on College Avenue in the 1850s, years before the University of Arkansas took its place. The Frisco Railroad in 1881 helped make Springdale an agricultural hub for the sale and transportation of apples and later livestock, and it made Rogers into a proper railroad town, Lord and others said. Siloam Springs stood as a border town with Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. And Bentonville eventually sprouted Walmart.

Washington and Benton counties were anomalies to the rest of the upland region, said Charlie Alison, an editor for university relations at the University of Arkansas, who runs the historical website

The mountainous part of the Ozarks had thin, poor soil, and most of the farming proved to be of subsistence was usually in the valleys, he said. Washington and Benton counties, on the other hand, reached out of the mountains into more level prairie land, which was better for agriculture.

"Like all parts of the state, this region went through its ups and downs economically during the 19th and 20th centuries, but we were more stable and more consistent in growth than most regions of Arkansas. We didn't boom like some areas, but we also didn't go bust either."

Smaller settlements between the cities that exist today often disappeared because of competition from their larger neighbors, Alison added.

No single town left over has gobbled up all of the newcomers. All of them have grown, perhaps because "they all sort of had their own thing going on" with their particular strengths, Blevins said.

Like siblings

About 20 years ago, leaders of Northwest Arkansas' biggest companies approached Uvalde Lindsey, who's retiring as a state senator from Fayetteville this year, to help them in a regional project. Lindsey said the big idea was to build an airport and improve infrastructure to benefit all of Northwest Arkansas rather than any one city. Doing so would take hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money.

"We pretty soon realized that all of our communities were strong individually in and of themselves, but we were playing Friday night football, if you will, seven days a week. Everyone was in competition with each other," Lindsey said. "We were like sibling children fighting for crumbs that were under the table rather than sitting at the table and cooperating together."

Lindsey, the then-new nonprofit group Northwest Arkansas Council and city leaders began to change that relationship and compete as one with other metropolitan areas for federal money. Results soon followed. A widened highway from Springdale to Siloam Springs was an early win that convinced the skeptics, Lindsey said. Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport came in 1998, and Interstate 540, now Interstate 49, about a year later.

"Everybody said, 'OK, this is working,'" Lindsey said.

He and other leaders said they see communities as members of a whole, though still with their own strengths and weaknesses as in the old days. Bentonville hosts the largest retailer in the world and Crystal Bridges. Springdale is home to Tyson Foods and Arkansas Children's Northwest Hospital. Rogers has its retail centers and Fayetteville is the college town. Several cities are investing in their downtowns to create unique urban cores.

An interstate and Razorback Greenway, which required years of cooperation along with millions in public and private money, tie all the big cities together. And all of Benton and Washington counties take part in a plan to preserve open and natural areas through the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.

"Together we make a good team," Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said, pointing to population growth as a big driver of the regional approach. The Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan area has grown from about 350,000 people in 2000 to more than 525,000 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cooperation extends to smaller levels, too. Some public school districts share technical courses with students in the other districts. Gentry's Career and Technical Education Center for diesel technology and nursing assistant classes opened last fall and is adding dozens of students next year, Assistant Superintendent Christie Toland said.

"Any time school districts can partner and work together, that's a win-win," she said, adding this kind of cooperation was nonexistent at her previous job in North Little Rock. "There are some brilliant teachers and administrators in Northwest Arkansas."

Though many think of Northwest Arkansas as sleepy in the days before its corporations, Blevins said its blossoming is no surprise.

"It was a very prosperous area -- one of the state's most prosperous, most productive places even before the Civil War," he said.

Friendly rivals

Local points of rivalry haven't vanished -- the siblings still fight sometimes, as Lindsey put it, pointing to recent attempts among Rogers, Bentonville and Cave Springs to annex the same land. Fayetteville tries to distinguish itself as the most environmentally and entrepreneur-friendly city, while Bentonville groups work to cultivate new entrepreneurs as well.

Bentonville isn't trying to match other cities so much as provide good services within its area, McCaslin said.

"We're here to create the environment and provide the infrastructure," he said.

Siloam Springs, divided from the central interstate corridor by 20 miles and a section of national forest, is competing for developers who ask why they should spend time away from the corridor, said Phillip Patterson, the city administrator.

His argument is the city of about 16,500 draws three times as many people who don't go all the way to the interstate for shopping and other business. He pointed to downtown parks around Sager Creek and other amenities. A new park with splash pads and an amphitheater is planned in the south part of town.

"Siloam Springs is that town 20 miles to the west, but we're more than that," Patterson said. "We're trying to do those things that enhance our quality of life."

School districts compete for students. More than 1,000 students in Benton and Washington counties' are attending schools in districts they don't live in because of the state's school choice law, according to Arkansas Department of Education numbers. Thousands more attend charter schools, private and parochial schools or are home-schooled.

Rick Schaeffer, spokesman for Springdale Public Schools, said the district invests in ways to educate all students well, including those who are learning English or want to tailor their learning. The Tyson School of Innovation, advanced classes and course tracks for construction and computer science and other areas keep the district at the cutting edge, he said.

Other districts offer different opportunities in career education, music, sports and the sciences for the same reasons, Schaeffer said, which means better education all around.

Patterson, McCaslin and others said the much the same thing in terms of the competition among cities.

"We may beat them in some things. They may beat us in some things. But the main thing is it's great opportunities for kids," Schaeffer said. "My personal thought is thank goodness I'll never have to compete with these kids for a job."

NW News on 03/04/2018