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As the U.S. struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, one economic think tank is optimistic Northwest Arkansas will excel -- if appropriate actions are taken.

Heartland Forward, based in Bentonville, laid out a recovery plan for the region on Monday, encouraging officials to invest in their communities and not be complacent. Workers in major metropolitan areas are setting their sights on greener pastures as covid-19 continues to ravage the country and remote-work becomes the new normal.

Ross DeVol, Heartland's president and chief executive, doesn't see why Northwest Arkansas can't be a potential prospect for relocators.

"[The region] is already weathering the covid-19 crisis better than its metropolitan counterparts," DeVol said. "If it invests in attracting talent, increasing quality of place and supporting the business ecosystem, it can compete with superstar coastal cities."

Heartland Forward, led by members of the Walton family and focused on ways to improve the U.S. heartland, made seven recommendations for Northwest Arkansas in Monday's report: become the leading small region for talent; be the best small place for arts, culture and recreation; grow the economy and jobs around anchor companies; bolster the region's small businesses and startups; make inclusion and diversity a priority; focus on health and safety; and rebrand and market the region.

The recommendations came from a mix of regional data and interviews with residents from Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Springdale. The goal of the report is to set a standard for recovery during the pandemic by leveraging the region's economic, social and demographic strengths while addressing its weaknesses.

Before the pandemic, the Northwest Arkansas economy was performing well, according to Heartland Forward. It ranked fourth in population growth since 1990 out of 100 U.S. metro areas with more than 500,000 people. It also ranked third in job growth and second in annual average pay gains among medium-sized metropolitan areas (populations between 500,000 and 999,999) between 2013 and 2018.

Since the pandemic, regional U.S. economies have regressed. Economist Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, said "nearly every indicator was worse" than last year in Northwest Arkansas. There are signs of improvement for the rest of 2020, but "it won't get us anywhere near where we were before," Jebaraj said earlier this month on a Zoom call.

Heartland Forward said it doesn't want Northwest Arkansas to miss an opportunity that brings talent to the region. To do that, it recommended playing to the region's strengths by improving and promoting its universities and national airport, outdoor recreation and biking infrastructure, to name a few.

The think tank also noted how the covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of health, inclusion and diversity. While efforts are being made to address these issues, more can be done.

"It must be a business priority and centerpiece of the region's impressive arts, culture and recreation initiatives, which should be tailored and expanded to meet the needs of less advantaged and minority populations and communities," the report said.

A marketing campaign was recommended to spread the word about Northwest Arkansas. It could focus on distinct qualities of the region such as corporations and culture, according to the report.

The full 98-page report is available at https://bit.ly/31nXava.

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