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When it comes to the gifts of 2016, it's easy to put our circumstances in Northwest Arkansas in perspective.

Whatever is happening in our lives in Arkansas, no matter how tough, consider this: You could have spent 2016 in Aleppo.

That's not to suggest everyone here ought to just "be happy." Life can throw us all some serious curve balls. Yet that's true no matter where people live. The people of Aleppo in Syria had to deal with life's normal challenges in addition to the very real possibility someone could walk into their homes (if their homes were still intact) and kill them, or a bomb could open up a vacant spot where they had shopped for elusive food just days before. Food and water supplies have been choked off at times. Kids splashed around for fun, such as it's achievable, in muddy water-filled bomb craters.

Yet think of the comfort in which many of us spent Christmas yesterday morning.

No, I'm not into guilt trips. There's no gain in them. Nobody should view living in a land of plenty as something to feel guilty about. But appreciation is another matter entirely. That's why I mention Aleppo. It's more of a count-your-blessings take on 2016.

Of those, there are many.

It's great to see the ongoing renewal of interest in downtowns, especially in places like Springdale and Rogers where a new energy is bubbling up in what once upon a time were the vibrant cores of those cities. For me, it's not as much about eschewing the expansion of cities at the borders -- sometimes that's needed -- as it is about making the best use of every square block of a city. American cities have too often grown at the expense of their downtown areas. I'm hopeful this trend toward more combined residential and commercial spaces will ensure those areas in our local, larger cities are recognized by businesses, homeowners and government leaders as the valuable spaces they are in the lives of our communities.

Three of the Big Four school districts in Benton and Washington counties got new superintendents this year. I've met with two so far and should get to visit with the third soon. And I had the great pleasure to visit with Jim Rollins, who has been superintendent of Springdale schools for more than 30 years the other day. In all, it looks like our local districts are in good hands, having handled the transition well. Great days are ahead for the students, teachers and staffs of local schools.

Last month's opening of the expanded Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville is undoubtedly a gift to the region -- made possible by a lot of generous people and companies -- along with the continued success of other arts-oriented venues and organizations. The expansion of arts and culture in Northwest Arkansas is good for the region's soul. None of that can be supported for long without a vibrant and successful economic development effort. Good jobs and good companies make it possible for good residents to live in our region and for good nonprofit organizations to thrive. I hope 2017 brings more of it all.

Trails and parks development in the region is the gift that keeps on giving. Connecting the larger cities with the Razorback Greenway has opened up a whole new world of outdoor adventure and physical activity for residents and visitors of the region.

The expansion of health care is a blessing to all of us. Yes, health care is expensive. Yes, the experience with health care can be frustrating. But the presence of so many health care professionals and specialities in this region is a true blessing. Just ask someone from elsewhere who must travel many miles for the health care we take for granted.

And finally, I appreciate the gift of newspapers. Is that self-serving? Maybe, but I'm a customer, too. Nobody provides news coverage so thoroughly day in and day out as the folks who work for newspapers, whether you read it in print or online. Our communities are better served when their people are knowledgable. Staying informed is a gift everyone one of us can give ourselves. I recommend it.

Commentary on 12/26/2016

Print Headline: The gifts of Northwest Arkansas

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