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Northwest Arkansas Featured in WSJ

- March 21, 2023

Clio and Adam Mills didn’t know much about Northwest Arkansas when, in July 2021, they visited a friend who lived in Bentonville. Mrs. Mills, who lived with Mr. Mills in Los Angeles at the time, said they immediately fell in love with the “growth and excitement” happening there. They especially liked the local focus on health and wellness. She said the Cocoon Yoga Lab, a local yoga studio, is the best studio she’s ever been to. 

The day after they arrived in Bentonville, Mrs. Mills, 37, founder of the digital and talent marketing agency Booje Media, asked to meet with her friend’s real-estate agent. “We met with her the next day,” she said. About a week after their visit, the Mills put an offer on a three-bedroom home on over 3 acres in Bentonville. They closed on it for about $550,000. 

Alicia Nobles and her partner moved from San Diego to Northwest Arkansas in 2022 after she got a job as a senior manager for Walmart Inc.’s data analytics department. “To be honest,” said Ms. Nobles, “I didn’t even know where this area was. I called one of my friends who went to the University of Arkansas, in Northwest Arkansas, and she said ‘Alicia you’re gonna love it, get on a plane and visit.’ ”

The couple visited for a few days and were surprised by the amount of recognizable retailers and businesses in the area. “I was really impressed with that because it meant that I could live in a midsize metro area that had plenty of jobs for people like myself,” she said.

They also liked the hiking and biking trail systems that run throughout the Northwest Arkansas region. Ms. Nobles, 38, said that seeing the region’s demographic diversity also pushed them to move to the area. “My partner is Hispanic and the Northwest Arkansas area actually has a fairly sizable Hispanic community,” she said. In February 2022, she and her partner each left their apartments in San Diego, for which they paid a total of $3,700. They rented in Northwest Arkansas before closing on a roughly $330,000, three-bedroom home in Rogers later in 2022. 

Northwest Arkansas, which borders Oklahoma and Missouri and rests along the Ozark Mountains, is experiencing a major growth spurt. With an estimated population of 543,749 in 2021, the area, which includes the cities of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Bella Vista, Lowell, Springdale and Rogers, is projected to grow to an estimated 858,283 by 2040, according to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. That is compared with an estimated 370,555 people who called the area home in 2005. 

The regional luxury market has also risen to new heights. In 2019, there were fewer than 600 home sales in Northwest Arkansas at or over $500,000, according to data collected by local agent Michelle Dearing with Engel & Völkers. In 2022, there were more than 2,000 home sales at or over $500,000.

For home sales over $1 million, the region saw over 200 in 2022 compared with less than 40 in 2019. 

The market began seeing serious price appreciation in the 2010s and that growth has ramped up in the past four years. For Benton and Washington counties, the median sale price was $305,000 as of January 2023, up from $186,900 during the same month in 2019, according to data collected by Phillip Shepard, a local real-estate agent with Collier & Associates.

Historically, much of the area’s population and economic growth has been powered by major companies that are based there and the families that founded them. The best known include Walmart, which was founded by Sam Walton in Rogers in 1962, and is based in Bentonville with about 54,000 employees statewide; Tyson Foods Inc., founded in 1935 in Springdale, with around 10,000 regional employees; and J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., founded in 1961 and today based in Lowell, with over 5,000 regional employees. 

Johnelle Hunt, who co-founded J.B. Hunt with her late husband, Johnnie Bryan Hunt, said that when they moved the company to Northwest Arkansas over 50 years ago, its major industry was poultry production and the area was “much more rural” than it is today with just a two-lane main road. “Now, we have a six-lane freeway,” she said.

For decades, these companies and their founding families have invested heavily in regional development and quality of life improvements to make the area more attractive to potential workers and current residents, according to Ms. Dearing. Projects include the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in 2011 and was founded by Alice Walton, a member of Walmart’s founding family, and its satellite art space, the Momentary, of which the Tyson Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart were founding funders.

The Walton Family Foundation has invested around $85 million into a maze of biking and walking trails throughout the region. The Hunt family was the primary donor for the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale, which the Walton Family Foundation has also donated to. The Hunt family has spearheaded much commercial development in Rogers, said Mrs. Hunt, including the donation of the land on which the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion was built. It opened in 2014. Tyson Foods and the Tyson Family Foundation are big investors in the Springdale area, where they have helped to fund downtown revitalization. Along with the Hunt family and the Walton Family Foundation, they also helped to fund the Jones Center, a community recreational facility.

Their efforts have been successful. “We have found that over and over and over again,” Mrs. Hunt said, “that these people come here from other places with these Fortune 500 companies and if they try to move them to another location, they’ll just change jobs and stay.”

Today, the area’s growth is increasingly being driven by transplants who move to the region but don’t work for any of the big national companies based there.

In November 2020, the Northwest Arkansas Council, founded in 1990 by the area’s business leaders, launched the Life Works Here program which awarded $10,000 and a bicycle to selected remote workers who chose to relocate to Northwest Arkansas, according to Council President Nelson Peacock. The program, which concluded last year, received 66,000 applicants and had 100 recipients. In December 2022, the Council conducted a month-long job recruitment campaign in Silicon Valley in the midst of tech layoffs there.

One of the Council’s Life Works Here recipients, Washington-native Nate Nead, said he had already decided to move to the area when he was selected as a winner of the program but that the award sweetened the deal. Mr. Nead, 40, and his wife, Carissa Nead, 36, were drawn to Bentonville because it gave them a small-town feel while still offering citylike amenities. “We loved the Pacific Northwest, but we had kind of outgrown it. We’d lived there for so long and were looking for something new,” Mr. Nead said. 

Mr. Nead, who is a remote investment banker and owner of the online marketing company, said Mrs. Nead’s family lives in the Northwest Arkansas region. After they visited them in the summer of 2020, they decided to move their four children from the Seattle area to Bentonville.

“The Pacific Northwest is an amazing place to live,” he said. “but if I weigh all the financial and social factors of Northwest Arkansas, it comes out on top for me personally.” Bentonville, he said, “has a much more small-town feel even though there is a lot going on here.”

The Northwest Arkansas luxury market, though growing, is still more affordable than the densely populated markets some new arrivals are moving from, with the higher-end luxury homes sales in the area typically ranging from $1 million to $3 million, Mr. Shepard said. At the end of February 2021, the Neads moved out of the Seattle area, where they were renting a 2,700-square-foot, four-bedroom home for around $3,500. In Bentonville, they bought a roughly 3,800-square-foot, four-bedroom custom build on over an acre for $949,000. 

The Neads have glass accordion doors that open up to a “massive backyard,” said Mr. Nead, who bought a large riding lawn mower for it. At his last home, “I had a little push mower that wasn’t even gas powered.”

The Neads bought in Bentonville in the midst of the pandemic-led housing rush. They lost six bidding wars before they finally landed a home. It hadn’t hit the market yet, said Mr. Nead. Despite economic pressures nationally, the growing job market in Northwest Arkansas has local agents confident that the steady wave of incoming residents will continue to buoy the real-estate market, said Mr. Shepard. 

In 2022, Tyson Foods announced that it will consolidate its corporate offices to Northwest Arkansas this year. Tyson employees were given the opportunity to relocate to the region, said vice president and associate general counsel, Jane Duke. The company is actively recruiting to replace those who have decided not to relocate. Walmart is also consolidating to Northwest Arkansas. In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that the retail giant will be closing offices in Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore., and Carlsbad, Calif., and paying employees there to move to primary offices, including its headquarters in Bentonville. The company is constructing a roughly 350-acre new home office in Bentonville that will include 12 office buildings and a hotel, according to Cindi Marsiglio, the senior vice president of corporate real estate for Walmart.

Retirees, or those planning to retire soon, also make up a significant portion of new transplants, according to Mr. Shepard, who said he has been seeing a wave of parents following their adult children to the area. 

Jeff Manley, a physician, and his wife, Cindy Manley, who is a labor and delivery nurse, are two of those parents. In January, the Manleys closed on a roughly $900,000 house in Rogers, about 7 miles from Bentonville and will be relocating from Texas, where they have lived since 2019, to be closer to several of their children. Dr. Manley, 49, said the region is unrecognizable compared with when he began visiting in 2012, when the Manleys lived about 45 minutes from Bentonville, in Joplin, Mo. “They didn’t have a whole lot of stuff going on,” he said. But now, “they’ve got everything.” 

According to Dr. Manley, cuisine options in the region have increased dramatically over the past decade with new restaurants by award-winning chefs, such as Conifer in Bentonville. Entertainment options are better now as well, he said. 

See it in the Journal here.

Northwest Arkansas Featured in WSJ