‘Sense of place’ is key to regional talent strategy
Led by the Walton Family Foundation, Northwest Arkansas officials look to walkable urban solutions for future economic growth.
Images for Fayetteville’s downtown plan show a transformation that boosts ‘sense of place’ that will appeal to prospective professional talent in the region. Images courtesy of Dover, Kohl & Partners, by Steve Price, Urban Advantage.
The foundation funded by the Walton family — of Walmart fame — sponsored about 25 people to come to the Congress for the New Urbanism in Buffalo in early June. It was a remarkable group, including mayors, city council members, chamber of commerce officials, and representatives of regional planning commissions, economic development and transportation agencies, and others from four primary cities in Northwest Arkansas.
The foundation’s purpose is to steer rapidly growing Northwest Arkansas toward becoming a walkable transit-oriented place that is attractive to educated young professionals.
The Walton Family Foundation initiative may seem ironic given that Walmart stores symbolize the single-use, big box format with large parking lots. Yet the foundation, which is led by a board of Walton family members, is concerned with the economic future of Northwest Arkansas, the fastest growing region in the US.
Three of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies — Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, and Walmart — are based in the in the region, which currently has 482,000 people. Because of Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, more than 1,300 vendors including Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Motorola, Nestlé, Dell, General Mills, Kellogg Company, and PepsiCo have set up corporate offices there. “People from all over the world are coming to work for these companies. We are in a race for talent,” says Rob Brothers, director of the regional Focus Area for the foundation.
The “talent” consists mainly of people with a college degree — who tend to favor mixed-use, walkable communities with a sense of place. Northwest Arkansas is historically rural. It’s four leading municipalities — Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville — range from about 40,000 to 80,000 people each. The growth pattern is dispersed and single-use, because it has mostly taken place in the last 40 or 50 years.
Retaining the young and educated
The concern is that the young and educated will choose to locate elsewhere if the amenities they are looking for — particularly the diverse neighborhoods served by transit — are lacking. “The goal is to attract and retain the kind of quality people at all levels that we need,” Brothers says.
Tyson Foods has already taken tangible action — it is moving its headquarters back to downtown Springdale. “They have 5 acres, which was the site of their original building, which has been derelict and abandoned for some time,” says Matthew Petty, city council member of Fayetteville who works at the University of Arkansas Community Design Center, and a CNU attendee.
After the meeting at CNU, the group discussed potential strategies to improve the sense of place, Petty says. The first is a regional form-based code (FBC). The City of Fayetteville has a citywide, optional, form-based code, which developers are choosing to use because by right they receive administrative approval of projects. The success of that code and the CNU experience — where many sessions covered FBCs — is helping Northwest Arkansas officials to feel comfortable with the concept, Petty says.
The second idea is to set up an training program in walkable urbanism, perhaps tied to CNU accreditation — as other places like El Paso, Texas, and Beaufort, South Carolina, have done.
The strategy for improving talent has four components, according to Brothers.
• Improve local primary education
• Create international-caliber culture
• Foster economic development
• Create a “sense of place.”
The last component, sense of place, is correlated with economic development.
There are six components to “sense of place,” according to Brothers.
• Increase nature trails and use of natural amenities
• Boost public green space
• Downtown revitalization
• Coordinate infrastructure and transportation networks
• Improve water quality
• Increase the knowledge base of local leaders in urban planning techniques and quality of life issues
Northwest Arkansas has a head start on this knowledge base from Fayetteville’s downtown plan and form-based code written by urbanists Dover, Kohl & Partners 10 years ago, followed by the citywide code written by city planners.
As for transportation, the region is fortunate in that all four cities are located on a single line. Despite the sprawl of recent decades, this geographic layout sets up the region for future public transit improvements. “The whole region originally grew with support by rail,” Petty says. “All of the downtowns are on a historic rail line – which still runs right next to the downtowns.”
But the most important factor could be that, with the foundation help, key officials in the four cities seem to be pulling together.
“When this is developer-driven, it takes 10 years at least to make a difference,” says Greg Hines, mayor of the City of Rogers. “When the city recognizes a need for it, you can see it happening in a meaningful way in a few years.”
Key to this cooperation is the growing recognition, Petty says, that “The labor force chooses where they are going to live first, and then they look for a job. Times have changed and have to focus on different strategies.’
The initiative doesn’t yet have a name but these ideas have been brewing for some time, Petty explains. Two years ago, the foundation began to require that cities receiving grant funds for nature trails have a downtown master plan. “That was the first signal that they were zeroing on urban amenities as a solution to their talent challenges,” he says.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns. This article appears in the July-August print issue.
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