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OPINION | REX NELSON: Arkansas' new era

by Rex Nelson | January 23, 2022 at 1:57 a.m.

The headline on the Bloomberg story was designed to attract attention; it certainly attracted mine.

"The Next Austin? How About Arkansas. Seriously."

Yes. Seriously.

"Ambitious young college graduates are looking for an affordable home base where they can build their families and careers," Conor Sen wrote. "Here's a place that may not (yet) be on their list: Arkansas. For the past decade, coastal metros like New York and San Francisco dominated the landscape for the upwardly mobile, but the main story became how to cope with the high cost of living in those cities.

"One solution was to move into lower-cost neighborhoods, further pushing up rents and home prices. Others moved to lower-cost metros that shared some of the characteristics of those high-cost places; Austin, Texas, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of that trend.

"Thanks to the accumulated impact of all that migration--accelerated by lifestyle changes during the pandemic--Austin is no longer affordable, and arguably overpriced for what it offers. That begs the question: Where should someone who's been priced out of Austin look? I would argue the best candidate to be the next Austin is the up-and-coming region known as northwest Arkansas."

Granted, the article is about northwest Arkansas, not the state as a whole. But its presence on a nationally recognized news site brings into focus something I've been saying for the past couple of years: The national perception of Arkansas is changing. We have a rare opportunity to enhance the trajectory of an entire state.

Unfortunately, we have a long history in Arkansas of not taking advantage of such opportunities.

I've written before about my Bentonville breakfast meeting last year in which Tom and Steuart Walton--the sons of Jim Walton and grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton--inspired me with their vision of Arkansas' future. They didn't use the term "the next Austin" since that means traffic congestion and high prices for those who have spent time in Austin. Arkansas is attractive because there's not much traffic and a low cost of living.

Rather than describing us as "the next Austin," the Walton brothers painted a picture of a place that's to middle America what Colorado is to the American West--a less crowded state that offers abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, an emphasis on the arts and fine, reasonably priced cuisine. Such a lifestyle not only attracts visitors, it also attracts smart, talented new residents.

The Walton brothers have put their time and capital into achieving that vision. It's a vision that isn't limited to northwest Arkansas. Witness the large Walton grants for hiking and biking trails in Hot Springs and the Delta.

Arkansans don't realize just how close we are to turning the corner.

Let's start with outdoor recreation. Arkansas has long been known for its hunting and fishing. The Walton brothers are determined to make the state the mountain biking capital of the country. And more Americans are now realizing we're also a great place for hiking, floating streams, rock climbing, hang-gliding, horseback riding, freshwater sailing and scuba diving.

Those who like outdoor activities also tend to like good food and drink after their adventures. The craft brewing and distillery scene is growing rapidly across the state. There have never been as many innovative restaurants as there are now. As far as sports that attract upscale audiences, we're becoming a center of the thoroughbred racing industry.

One of the smartest things state government did in 2021 was establish the Arkansas Office of Outdoor Recreation and the Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board. Katherine Andrews was named in November as the first director of the office.

The purpose of the Office of Outdoor Recreation is to leverage the state's outdoor recreational assets in order to grow the economy. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who established the office through an executive order, now needs to ensure that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and other state agencies coordinate closely with the office. It will play a key role in retaining and attracting the young talent the Arkansas economy needs.

The board--which includes well-known Arkansans such as George Dunklin, Bill Barnes and Mike Mills--hasn't received the attention it deserves. If things progress as I hope they will, it will be among the most important state boards within a decade.

Next, the arts. That discussion starts with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville, which last year revealed plans to increase the size of its facility by 50 percent. World-renowned architect Moshe Safdie has returned to ensure the addition seamlessly connects to the existing structure. There will be additional galleries, educational facilities, event space and another cafe.

There's also the expansion of what was the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. It's now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. Museum officials announced last year that they had surpassed their previous fundraising goal of $128 million and set a new goal of $142 million. The museum is being designed by the internationally known firm Studio Gang, with extensive landscaping being done in MacArthur Park by another famous firm, SCAPE.

Take Crystal Bridges and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts and then throw in the massive gifts from the Windgate Foundation of Little Rock. Founded in 1992, the foundation bases grants on contemporary craft and visual arts education.

It was announced in August that a $30 million Windgate Foundation grant will follow an earlier $40 million gift for the Windgate Art and Design District at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. That's on top of a $120 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation that was announced in 2017, leading to establishment of the UA's School of Art. That's $190 million from just two entities.

"The Windgate grants are providing the bulk of money used to build art facilities at the art and design district, located on and just south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard," Jaime Adame wrote for the Arkansas Democrat- Gazette. "The commercial thoroughfare connects the visual art buildings to the main university campus about four blocks away.

"The new Windgate grant will be made available once the university raises $7 million in matching funds."

Construction continues on the 154,660-square-foot Windgate Studio and Design Center, which will house programs in ceramics, drawing, painting, photography and graphic design. That building will cost about $55 million.

The gift announced in August will help fund construction of a 58,000-square-foot building for public galleries, a 250-seat auditorium, and studios for faculty members and visiting artists. It will be known as the Windgate Gallery and Foundations Building.

In December, the Windgate Foundation announced the largest financial contribution in the history of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro. The $25 million gift will help fund construction of the Windgate Hall of Art and Innovation and an accompanying arts district.

Other Windgate gifts to colleges and universities in Arkansas have included $20.3 million to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for the Windgate Center of Art + Design and $20 million to the University of Central Arkansas at Conway for an arts center. The foundation provided grants of more than $10 million for the Windgate Museum of Art on the campus of Hendrix College at Conway (the museum opened in October 2020) and followed that in the fall of 2020 with a $15 million gift in support of student scholarships.

What's happening in Bentonville, Little Rock and on college campuses hopefully will lead to more artists calling Arkansas home. Some of them will add to the gallery roster in arts communities such as Hot Springs and Eureka Springs.

Between outdoor recreation and the arts, we're close to entering a new era in Arkansas. The next Austin? No thank you. The next Colorado? Yes. Seriously.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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