Recently-released U.S. Census Bureau population estimates are a new verse set to a familiar tune: Northwest Arkansas continues to grow at a healthy clip while the rural reaches of East Arkansas grapple with shrinking numbers.
In its forecasted year-over-year numbers, the Bureau reported Arkansas gained just over 16,000 residents between July 2016 and July 2017. This represents a 0.5 percent increase, the largest one-year growth in population in at least five years. Pulaski County, the state’s largest, was essentially flat year over year.
Benton and Washington counties enjoyed the strongest population growth in the state both in sheer numbers and on a percentage basis. Benton County gained 7,596 residents (2.9 percent growth) while Washington County added 4,396 residents (1.9 percent growth).
Calhoun and Lonoke counties were next highest on a percentage basis at 1.6 percent growth, while four counties – Saline, Madison, Izard and Sharp – each posted 1.5 percent growth. Saline County was also third in number of new adds (1,746), followed by Faulkner County (1,571), Craighead County (1,334) and Lonoke County (1,141).
Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said the attraction to his part of the state boils down to very simple elements – jobs, education and especially, quality of life.
“We have a quality of life up here that’s literally off the chart, driven a lot by the trail system, driven a lot by the amenities that have resulted from all these folks moving from literally all over the world,” he said. “Whether it’s lacrosse teams or traveling soccer teams, you fill in the blank – bicycles, mountain bikes, road races, half marathons – the quality of life is here. Some people are moving here solely for that.”
McCaslin said maintaining that quality of life is more than just mowing soccer fields; it’s also taken careful planning and a willingness to invest in infrastructure and needed services. The city added 10 full-time professional firefighters last year alone and has grown its police force to more than 100 sworn officers, not counting dispatch and other administrative positions.
Additional facilities for police and fire are in the works, as are extensive street and highway work to accommodate the larger headcount. Based on the numbers, the strategy is working.
“We’ve seen our population grow from the year 2000 census when, officially, we had 19,000,” McCaslin said. “In 2004 or 2005 the city commissioned a special census and I think we recorded 26,000. When we did the 2010 census, we were at 35,000. Today our best estimate of our population in 2018 is north of 48,000.
“I will tell you that in the 2020 census I think it would be very reasonable to see a number greater than 53,000,” he added. “When you look at that compared to the 2010 number of 35,000 that would be 50 plus percent growth rate over those 10 years.”
On the other end of the spectrum, counties throughout the Arkansas Delta and other generally rural and poor areas continue to lose residents; for each of the following counties, 2017 marked the fifth consecutive annual drop in population.
Jefferson County led the state, losing 1,227 residents, or 1.7 percent, followed by Mississippi County losing 726 residents, also 1.7 percent. Rounding out the top five included Crittenden County (down 570 residents), Phillips County (down 478 residents) and St. Francis County (down 374 residents). Phillips and Chicot counties had the highest percentage drop at 2.5 percent lost, followed by Monroe County (2.1 percent drop) and Lee County (2 percent drop).
Forrest City Mayor Larry Bryant said such declines have come despite counties’ best efforts to stem the flow of people. He said while it’s too early to tell if the exodus, along with tariffs from Washington, will derail a previously announced deal by Shandong Ruyi Technology Group of China that promised $410 million in investment and up to 800 new jobs in Forrest City, his administration isn’t standing still in its efforts to attract more industry.
“Our city has always had welcoming and open arms,” Bryant said. “We have a 1/8 cent sales tax dedicated towards industrial development. It goes into force whenever a company would decide to come to our area.”
Speaking regionally, Bryant said many of the pieces that could lead the Delta back to prosperity are already in place, starting with education. He said the area needs to “find its niche” and suggested tourism can be that niche, but that no one county can do it alone, especially when it comes to reversing public perception and dealing with social problems.
“I don’t care who the leader is or what incentives we have, people read the newspaper and when the newspapers and media over in Memphis come over here, it’s for something bad,” Bryant said.
“The biggest elephant in the room in the Delta is race. If we can ever conquer that rascal and call everything, instead of black and white, call it green and we’re all working towards green we’ll be able to get out of this. Until we do some of that, politics what they are, we’re going to be destined to be where we are.”