Nationally, being in the top 10 is an outstanding achievement.
And no, we’re not talking about Dave Van Horn’s baseball team, Courtney Deifel’s softball team, or the University of Arkansas men’s and women’s track and field teams, although they all have plenty to offer.
Around this time every year, supporters of communities or regions that celebrated last year’s celebration of being among the “Best Places to Live” observe and muse: will this year’s US News & World Report analysis bring another “hooray” moment or does one have to delve into the data to find out how 365 days makes a difference of one, two, or five points.
That’s where the Northwest Arkansas metropolitan area sits in 2022 — a bit of navel-gazing to figure out its place in the publication’s world of “best places.” This year, the region dropped from fourth to seventh place.
That’s enough to piss some people off, but let’s take a moment and recognize that a place in the top 10 is strong enough to fuel another year of advertisements and brochures promoting the region’s appeal for the announce taking root. It’s not just PR; it’s a fact.
If you love living in Northwest Arkansas, it doesn’t take a magazine to convince you to keep loving it. For the folks who already call the place home, the annual list isn’t about tackling all the reasons why, but rather an annual checkup, not unlike a doctor’s visit, because a certain page of the calendar turns for any signs of illness.
Northwest Arkansas moved up from #4 last year to #7 in 2022, a shift that appears to reflect small discrepancies in the data that make up the magazine’s methodology, its real estate editor told the newspaper when explaining why the region fell down in his list.
“Fayetteville’s affordability, job market, population growth due to net migration, and other details are all strong, putting Fayetteville at number 7,” Devon Thosby said, also explaining that the places in the top 10 all offer a lot of what people are looking for when housing to buy.
In other words, it’s a close race, so year-to-year fluctuations in any measurement can mean the difference of one or two or three places on the magazine’s list.
However, our region has been in the top 10 best places to live since 2016. It’s a consistency worth celebrating and so far shows that the region is on a growth path without significantly impacting the region’s appeal as a place to live.
[DROPCAP] The annual ‘best seat’ announcement also provides – or should – a moment to reflect on what the future holds. The bad news is that there are no guarantees.
Some examples: Huntsville, Alabama, this year’s No. 1, wasn’t in the top 10 at all six years ago. Seattle was 7th in 2016 but has fallen to 36th in 2022. Even more dramatically, Denver could tout No. 1 in 2016 but has fallen to No. 55 in 2022.
Any advantages that a city or region has require constant attention in order to remain advantages. Certain aspects of US news ratings reflect the changing tastes of Americans, but how communities respond or don’t respond to their popularity also contributes to their staying power on the list.
With this in mind, Northwest Arkansas leaders know they cannot rest on their laurels. The region undoubtedly has its growth challenges.
More recently, regional planners discussed their study of the region’s major roads and their ability to accommodate projected growth over the next 25 years. Gridlock, they say, can be more than just an annoyance; This can lead to economic losses as companies suffer time delays in delivering goods. Congestion also plays a role in another critical measure of quality of life: safety. When roads are congested with traffic, it often leads to more accidents. Infrastructure investment locally and with federal dollars will be a necessity and, as usual, the money will not go as far as it needs to. There will be no place for wasteful projects that don’t improve Northwest Arkansas’ transportation capacity.
Apartment prices and availability remain a hot topic. Demand has pushed up prices aggressively, making the region harder to afford for some people. If affordability becomes an obstacle, it could dampen people’s enthusiasm for living or relocating here.
And it’s not just about impressing newcomers. It’s about the people who are already listening finding satisfaction in their daily lives. What impact will smaller cities and rural areas have as larger cities fill up, and is there infrastructure to accommodate such a shift? No wonder someone gets up between neighbors and gets angry: “Our city is losing its character. It’s losing its charm.” A Farmington resident told officials the town is becoming too much like other towns in the area, which are “cramming more houses in”.
And yet these houses are urgently needed.
We suspect staying at the top of the best places list is harder than getting there. Population growth will exacerbate any existing problem, be it healthcare, employment, wages, recreational opportunities, poverty, homelessness or any other concern.
Don’t forget crime. There’s a lot of talk in both Benton and Washington counties about spending millions of dollars on new prisons — or not. This isn’t just a bricks-and-mortar discussion. The effectiveness of our criminal justice system plays a direct role in what terms like “quality of life” really mean. It’s important to get this right. It cannot be ignored.
Let’s celebrate the achievements and popularity of the region. Doing a lap of honor is a natural reaction. But as in racing, future victories depend as much or more on the work ahead than on past accomplishments.
[DROPCAP]Northwest Arkansas as the best place to live is no guarantee. It will take creative ideas, strong leadership and lots of public and private investment to preserve the quality of life amid the necessary changes. It seems appropriate to keep all of this in mind in an election year. If a candidate doesn’t match someone capable of leading the region with great ideas and much more than status quo thinking, maybe it’s time to look for someone else. Are the people who want to introduce us to the task? That is a legitimate and important question.
We have no doubt that the region can recognize past achievements and build on them as long as people recognize that this will continue to require a lot of work.