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NWA ranks fourth on ‘Best Places to Live’ report

Region climbs, passes Austin and Denver by Doug Thompson | July 13, 2021 at 7:22 a.m.
Raymond Barett of Bentonville measures a sheet of metal to cover the frame of a building, Monday, July 12, 2021 at a private property along Springvalley Rd. in Bentonville. Raymond Barett is building properties to lease out to private businesses as an income source. Check out nwaonline.com/210713Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

The Northwest Arkansas metro area passed Austin, Texas, to claim the number four spot in the annual U.S. News & World Report “Best Places to Live” survey released today.

The region rose four places while Austin fell two to fifth place.

“I’m giddy,” said Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce President Steve Clark.

Anywhere in Arkansas surpassing the trend-setting Texas town of Austin as a “cooler” place to live is a landmark event for the whole state, said the former Arkansas attorney general.

Alice Walton, leading patron of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, along with community efforts at developing the Northwest Arkansas Greenway and other quality of life improvements have changed both the reality and the image of the area, Clark said.

“You can’t buy enough advertising to create a perception like that,” he said.

The top three in the rankings of the nation’s top 150 metropolitan statistical areas were: Boulder, Colo.; Raleigh and Durham, N.C., and Huntsville, Ala.

Metro areas in the U.S. News rankings refers to metropolitan statistical areas as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Fayetteville statistical area includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties.

The Northwest Arkansas region held its ground while three metro areas fell after being ranked higher than Fayetteville a year ago. Besides Austin, Colorado Springs, Colo., fell from fourth to sixth place, and Denver plummeted 12 places from second to 14th, the report said.

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a group of area business and civic leaders, has compared this region to Austin and four other “peer” regions since at least 2002 to try and emulate their success, previous reports by the council show. The other regions are Madison, Wis.; Raleigh, N.C.; Provo, Utah; and Des Moines, Iowa.

“Northwest Arkansas continues to be recognized as one of the top places to live in the country due to its incredible job opportunities, low cost of living and world-class quality of life amenities,” said Nelson Peacock, president and chief executive of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “In order to maintain this success, we must continue to invest in education, workforce development and infrastructure, and ensure there is adequate and affordable housing for our growing workforce. Most importantly, we must do everything we can to keep our community a place where all are welcome and included.”

The higher rating in the U.S. News rankings is good news, but Northwest Arkansans should also note the causes of other areas slipping including Austin, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at University of Arkansas.

Higher housing prices and longer commute times factored into Austin’s relative decline in the ratings, according to the results. Northwest Arkansas also faces rising housing costs and longer commute times, he said. Austin is simply farther down the same path, he said.

“No one is going to look at Austin as a cautionary tale,” Jebaraj said. “But they had a chance to address the housing problems and made the wrong decisions. We still have a chance to avoid that.”

People in Northwest Arkansas’ larger cities already pay more to live and commute, as a percentage of their incomes, than do residents in New York City or Chicago, according to an index formulated by the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.

The Walton Family Foundation, a Bentonville-based nonprofit group, partnered with the Northwest Arkansas Council in March to create a workforce housing center to address the housing cost issue.

“When you look at the underlying data in the rankings you can see that affordability is why some of these cities fell in the rankings, and that’s an issue we need to pay attention to,” said Emma Pengelly, interim home region program director of the Walton Family Foundation.

Housing affordability has definitely drawn the attention of Northwest Arkansas’ leaders and elected officials, she said.

An encouraging trend is how more businesses, not just people, are moving into the region, Pengelly said. Smaller businesses moved to Northwest Arkansas even during the pandemic, showing a strong economy and “vibrancy,” she said. She also said this year’s U.S. News rankings seemed to show more smaller communities higher up.

The Little Rock metro area also made the list, coming in at 93. No other metro area in Arkansas was ranked. Other Arkansas metro areas are Fort Smith, Hot Springs, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff and Texarkana. Portions of northeast Arkansas fall in the Memphis, Tenn., metro area, which ranked 143rd.

The report factors in local job markets, quality of life and the number of people moving in and out of an area. The quality of life measure considers crime rates, availability of health care, local quality of education and commuting time.

U.S. News also surveyed 3,600 people throughout the United States to find out what qualities they consider important in a place to live. The report uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, health care surveys and ratings and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as U.S. News’ own rankings of the best high schools and best hospitals.

Fayetteville and Little Rock now rank above San Diego and Honolulu. San Diego fell from number 45 to 97, while Honolulu dropped 42 spots to number 113. San Diego’s fall was “largely due in part to its average monthly unemployment rate for 2020 reaching 9.28%,” U.S. News said in a news release accompanying the report.

“Cities with metro areas with tourism and hospitality at the forefront of their economic base also fell in the rankings,” U.S. News said. It noted Las Vegas, which had a monthly average unemployment rate of around 15%, dropped 50 spots to 137, while Honolulu fell 42 spots in the rankings to No. 113, with a monthly average unemployment rate of 10.31%. The covid pandemic severely hurt the tourism industry, national figures show.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that many metro areas that saw unemployment levels skyrocket in 2020 fell in the rankings, but those with greater employment stability tended to fare well,” said Devon Thorsby, real estate editor at U.S. News.

Raleigh-Durham ranked below Fayetteville in last year’s survey, but moved up from 11th place to second on the strength of its job market and other scores though its quality of life score slightly dropped, the report summary said.

Likewise, Huntsville ranked below Fayetteville last year, but rose 12 places this year. Raleigh-Durham and Huntsville benefited from the stability of the research, academic and aerospace engineering sectors, the report said. Huntsville also ranked first in the report’s “most affordable places” list.

A faster pace in the rising cost of living and in housing prices in particular hurt Austin, Colorado Springs and Denver — three cities Fayetteville passed in the ratings.

“Housing affordability is always of great concern, but as people solidify their plans to work remotely, struggle to find a house in a hot housing market or consider a cross-country move, a low cost of living is even more important,” Thorsby said.

Top 10 places to live in the U.S.

For the full list, go to https://realestate.usnews.com/places/rankings/best-places-to-live?src=usn_pr

  1. Boulder, Colo.
  2. Raleigh and Durham, N.C.
  3. Huntsville, Ala.
  4. Fayetteville, Ark.
  5. Austin, Texas
  6. Colorado Springs, Colo.
  7. Naples, Fla.
  8. Portland, Maine
  9. Sarasota, Fla.
  10. Portland, Ore.

Source: U.S. News & World Report

Dave Evans of Bentonville screws metal sheeting to the frame of a building, Monday, July 12, 2021 at a private property along Springvalley Rd. in Bentonville. Raymond Barett is building properties to lease out to private businesses as an income source. Check out nwaonline.com/210713Daily/ for today's photo gallery. 
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Dave Evans of Bentonville screws metal sheeting to the frame of a building, Monday, July 12, 2021 at a private property along Springvalley Rd. in Bentonville. Raymond Barett is building properties to lease out to private businesses as an income source. Check out nwaonline.com/210713Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
New home construction continues Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Park Meadows subdivision on E. Swift Drive in Fayetteville. U.S. News and World and World Report ranking of metro areas released moves of Fayetteville to 4th in the nation ahead of Austin and the Little Rock metro area made the list of 150 regions coming in at number 93. Check out nwaonline.com/210713Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
New home construction continues Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Park Meadows subdivision on E. Swift Drive in Fayetteville. U.S. News and World and World Report ranking of metro areas released moves of Fayetteville to 4th in the nation ahead of Austin and the Little Rock metro area made the list of 150 regions coming in at number 93. Check out nwaonline.com/210713Daily/ and nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery.(NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
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