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story.lead_photo.caption Information and map showing population changes in Arkansas' metro areas. - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Northwest Arkansas is among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, even as the Pine Bluff region experienced population decreases, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the 381 metropolitan areas defined by the bureau, Northwest Arkansas' metropolitan statistical area -- including Benton, Washington and Madison counties and McDonald County, Mo. -- ranked No. 25 in percent population growth from 2010 through 2015.

The area's population grew by more than 10 percent, from 465,802 in 2010 to 513,559 in 2015.

"It's amazing how consistent the population growth has been for such a long period of time," said Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

But the counties that make up the Pine Bluff metropolitan area -- Cleveland, Jefferson and Lincoln -- ranked No. 2 in the country for its percent population decrease.

The area's population shrank by more than 6 percent, from 100,083 in 2010 to 93,696 in 2015.

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said the estimates, based on the last census, may be inaccurate because the area had a low response rate to surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010.

She acknowledged her city faces challenges.

"Since the mid-'90s, you have a shift in industry, you have a shift in sectors," she said. "We experienced that shift in manufacturing," she said. "A lot of the companies were bought in Pine Bluff -- and because the companies were bought and downsized, jobs relocated."

The key to attracting and retaining population is jobs, officials from both regions say.

"The reason we are having that consistent population growth is because of all the opportunities in job growth," Deck said of Northwest Arkansas.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the region's employment increased 16.6 percent between December 2010 and December 2015.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. announced late last year it plans to add more than 1,000 jobs in the state over the next six years as it expands its Lowell corporate headquarters.

The trucking and logistics company broke ground in September on a six-story, 133,000-square-foot office building scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2017.

The Jonesboro and Little Rock metropolitan areas are also growing faster than the national average between 2010 and 2015, at 5.9 and 4.2 percent respectively. The national average was 3.9 percent.

Jonesboro's population was at 128,394 and Little Rock's at 731,612 last year.

"This is a wonderful city to live in," said Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. "Let me be more specific. We've got a lot of varied work sectors that provide a variety of job opportunities for people. I think that's certainly one element of it."

There are also the abundant parks, education options and local hospitality, which are harder to measure, the mayor said.

"It's good for the state to have multiple growth centers," Deck said. "You don't want to rely on one place to drive all the growth."

She said Pine Bluff is in a vicious cycle of seeing a slow population drain.

"It's true that economic success breeds job growth. The problem is it is hard to invest where there are fewer and fewer resources every year because there are fewer people," Deck said.

Hollingsworth said Pine Bluff is a "comeback city."

Southwind Milling, KisWire and Highland Pellets are bringing hundreds of jobs to the area through expansions, she said.

And Energy Security Partners of Little Rock is considering building a $3.7 billion facility to convert natural gas to diesel fuel, she said.

If built, the project would create 225 new, permanent plant-operator positions with an average wage of $40 per hour, according to a news release from the Jefferson County Alliance.

However, from December 2010 through December 2015, employment decreased by 13.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The area is down 5,200 jobs over five years.

Fort Smith is also working to stop its 0.2 percent population decline through investment in Chaffee Crossing, a 7,000-acre mixed-use development inside the Fort Smith and Barling city limits.

More than $1 billion in capital investment has been made in the project since the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority trust was formed in 2000.

Businesses locating at Chaffee Crossing have created more than 1,400 jobs, with several residential, educational, commercial and recreational projects in the works, including the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. The osteopathic school is under construction on 228 acres.

But what makes Northwest Arkansas different, Deck said, is that employers don't just help the area through job growth.

"The secret sauce to continued growth in the area is reinvestment. It's about making Northwest Arkansas an attractive place to be," she said.

The Walton Family Foundation distributed $375 million in grants last year, including nearly $114 million through its Home Region Program. The foundation's home region includes Northwest Arkansas and the Delta Region of Arkansas and Mississippi.

Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director, said the foundation's investments in quality of life initiatives have been happening for decades.

"I think the Home Region program helps it connect to other investment areas in a way that leverages all the investments," she said. "It creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile trail through Benton and Washington counties, are just two of the foundation's investments.

"One area Northwest Arkansas is head-and-shoulders above our peers is philanthropy," said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council. "As our companies grew, they stayed in the area and give so much back to the community. It speaks volumes about the culture and the real family businesses that grew up here."

Metro on 04/04/2016

Print Headline: NW Arkansas 25th in U.S. for population gain

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