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NWA EDITORIAL | Northwest Arkansas is one of the nation’s best places to live, but it’ll take work to keep that status

On a national scale, 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 men’s and women’s track teams at the University of Arkansas, although they all have plenty to brag about.

Every year about this time, promoters of communities or regions that last year celebrated being among the “Best Places to Live” watch and ponder: Will this year’s analysis by U.S. News & World Report bring another “hoorah” moment or will it require digging into the data to figure out how 365 days made a difference of one, two or five spots.

That’s where the Northwest Arkansas metro area finds itself in 2022 — a bit of navel-gazing to figure out its place in the publication’s “Best Places” world. This year, the region dropped from fourth to seventh.

That’s enough to make some people fret, but let’s just take a moment and recognize a finish within the Top 10 is plenty strong enough to fuel another year of promotional ads and brochures touting the region’s desirability for putting down some roots. 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 taking inventory of all the reasons why so much as it is an annual checkup, the kind not unlike seeing your doctor because a particular page on the calendar flips rather than because of any signs of illness.

Northwest Arkansas moved from No. 4 last year to No. 7 in 2022, a shift that appears to reflect small variations in the data that make up magazine’s methodology, its real estate editor told this newspaper in explaining why the region dropped in its listing.

“Fayetteville’s affordability, job market, population growth due to net migration and other details are all strong, and get Fayetteville to No. 7,” Devon Thosby said, also explaining that the places in the Top 10 all offer a lot of what people look for when they’re shopping for a place to live.

In other words, it’s a tight race, so year-to-year fluctuations in any measurement can mean the difference of a spot or two or three on the magazine’s list.

Our region, though, has been in the Top 10 Best Places to Live since 2016. That’s a level of consistency worth celebrating and demonstrates, so far, that the region is navigating growth without doing significant damage to the region’s desirability as a place to live.

[LINESPACE] [DROPCAP] The annual announcement of “best place” also provides — or should — a moment to consider what the future holds. The bad news is 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 No. 7 in 2016 but has dropped in 2022 to No. 36. Even more dramatically, Denver could tout the No. 1 slot in 2016 but has dropped all the way to No. 55 in 2022.

All of the advantages a town or region has require constant attention to remain advantages. Certain aspects of the U.S. News evaluation reflects changing tastes of Americans, but how communities respond or fail to respond to their popularity also contributes to their staying power in the list.

With that in mind, leaders in Northwest Arkansas know they can’t rest on past laurels. The region undoubtedly has its growth-related challenges.

Just the other day, regional planners discussed their study of the region’s major roadways and their capacity to handle the predicted growth in the next 25 years. Gridlock, they say, can be more than just an irritation; it can lead to economic losses as companies suffer time delays in delivering goods. Congestion also plays into another critical quality-of-life measure: safety. If roads are overwhelmed by traffic demands, that often leads to more wrecks. Infrastructure investments locally and with federal dollars will be a necessity and, as usual, the money won’t go as far as it needs to. There will be no room for wasteful projects that don’t improve Northwest Arkansas’ transportation capacity.

Housing prices and availability remain a hot topic. Demand has pushed prices aggressively higher, making the region tougher for some people to afford. If affordability becomes a barrier, it could dampen people’s enthusiasm for living or moving here.

And it’s not just about impressing those moving into the region. It’s about ensuring the folks already hear find satisfaction in their day-to-day lives. As larger cities fill up, what impact will it have on smaller towns and rural areas, and is there infrastructure to handle such a shift? It’s not surprising when someone stands up among neighbors and frets “Our town is losing its character. It’s losing its charm.” One resident in Farmington told officials the city is becoming too much like other cities in the region that are “cramming more houses in.”

And yet those houses are desperately needed.

Staying on top of the Best Places list is harder than getting there, we suspect. Population growth will amplify whatever problems exist, whether it’s in health care, employment, salaries, recreational opportunities, poverty, homelessness or other concerns.

Don’t forget crime. In both Benton and Washington counties there’s a lot of talk about spending millions of dollars — or not — on new jail space. That’s not just a discussion about bricks and mortar. Our criminal justice system’s effectiveness plays a direct role in what phrases like “quality of life” really mean. It’s vital to get that right. It cannot be ignored.

Let’s celebrate the region’s achievements and popularity. Taking a victory lap is a natural response. But as in racing, future victories rely as much or more on the work ahead than on the achievements of the past.

[LINESPACE] [DROPCAP]Northwest Arkansas as a best place to live is no guarantee. It’s going to take creative ideas, strong leadership and many public and private investments to preserve the quality of life amid the necessary changes. It seems appropriate to keep all that in mind in an election year. If a candidate doesn’t fit the bill of someone capable of leading the region with great ideas and much more than status quo thinking, perhaps it’s time to look at someone else. Are the people who want to lead us up to the task? It’s a fair and important question.

We don’t doubt the region can figure out and build on the successes of the past, as long as its people recognize that will continue to demand a great deal of work.

 

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