By Brenda Bernet
A young demographic makes up a key part of the Northwest Arkansas population, according to new data from U.S. Census Bureau.
“Our community leaders have been very strategic about expanding and making Northwest Arkansas a place that is attractive to folks at the beginning of their careers,” said Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s opening in 2011 coincided with a thriving downtown in Bentonville, Deck said. New cultural attractions, outdoor activities and places of leisure target young professionals and families and make the area a nice place to live for multiple generations, she said.
The U.S. Census Bureau breaks down the population of Benton and Washington counties into five-year age groups. The new population estimates are as of July 2015.
Young adults ages 20 to 24 were the largest group in Washington County last year. The largest age group in Benton County was 30 to 34 years old, though the county had similarly sized populations of children ages 5 to 9 years old and from ages 10 to 14, demographics that reflect the ages of young families.
The list of activities for families with children grew rapidly the past several years, said Mike Malone, president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council.
“For our companies to continue to grow, we’re going to have to attract in young talent and creative talent from elsewhere,” Malone said. “Hopefully, we can create experiences and an environment where they want to work.”
Leading the growth
The combined populations of Benton and Washington County added 48,113 residents between the 2010 Census and July 2015, raising the total to 475,149. The growth in the two Northwest Arkansas counties accounted for 86.2 percent of the state’s growth during the same period, according to an analysis of Census data.
The state has added 55,810 residents since the 2010 Census for a population in 2015 of 2,978,204.
If the state’s population trends continue, Arkansas will reach 3 million people next year, largely driven by growth in the Northwest region.
“From an economist point of view, I think it pretty clearly illustrates how population growth and economic activity are interrelated,” said Michael Pakko, chief economist at the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“Obviously, you have Northwest Arkansas growing in population. That’s where most of the job growth has been. The second real hot spot for employment growth over the past couple of years has been Jonesboro. You see that on the map as well.”
As in past years, Benton and Washington counties ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in population growth. Benton County gained 6,800 people and Washington County gained 4,800 people in 2015.
Even though the state’s overall population grew, the 2015 population estimates also show 49 of the state’s 75 counties in Arkansas are shrinking.
Central Arkansas — Pulaski County and the six counties that surround it — saw mixed population changes. Ultimately, the region isn’t growing as quickly as it was five years ago.
The largest population decline in the state occurred in neighboring Jefferson County, which lost 800 people. Declines have been worse in previous years. Since 2010, population in the county is down by 5,800 people.
Millennials making a mark
Washington County follows national trends showing Millennials, adults ages 20 to 34, have overtaken Baby Boomers, adults ages 50 to 69, according to a demographic breakdown of 2015 population estimates released Thursday. Baby Boomers still outnumber Millennials statewide and in Benton County.
Last year there were 24.9 percent more Millennials than Baby Boomers in Washington County. Baby Boomers exceeded Millennials statewide by 23.2 percent, but by just 3.8 percent in Benton County in 2015.
The Pew Research Center in April reported Millenials, which the center identified as those ages 18-34 in 2015, had a population of 75.4 million nationwide, surpassing the 74.9 million adults who make up the nation’s Baby Boomers, those ages 51-69.
Immigration nationally drove the growth of the Millennial population, which the center projects to peak at 81.1 million in 2036. The Baby Boomers, defined by the boom in U.S. births following World War II, are older and their numbers are shrinking as the number of deaths for that age group exceeds the number of older immigrants moving to the United States, according to the Pew report.
The Census Bureau breakdown of the 2015 county population estimates required using slightly different age groups than those used by the Pew center, with the population of 20- to 34-year-olds in 2015 being the closest to the age groups used by the Pew for Millenials and the population of 50- to 69-year-olds in 2015 representing the Baby Boomers.
Millennial workers have a different perspective on life than other generations, Malone said. At 47, he falls in Generation X, the group sandwiched between Millennials and Baby Boomers.
He remembers mentioning the Razorback Regional Greenway during an interview with a Millennial. She said she would rather buy a “lousy” house with direct access to the trail than a nicer house that required her to drive to the trail. The 36-mile trail runs through several cities from Fayetteville to Bella Vista.
Adults ages 20-34 years are often interested in quality of life and lifestyle amenities when considering where they want to live, Malone said. Lifestyle amenities include opportunities for outdoor recreation, the culinary arts scene, local breweries and concert series.
The Millennial workforce has drawn more attention since the council published last year a new three-year plan for economic development in the region, he said. The plan includes continuing to develop Northwest Arkansas as a family friendly region with high quality schools and access to other learning opportunities and the arts.
Downtown development has become more important, Malone said.
Springdale is among the latest with downtown activity, including the development of a new Walter Turnbow Park and events, such as outdoor movie nights, organized by the Downtown Springdale Alliance. The city on Saturday also will open a new large park in east Springdale with ball fields, tennis courts and a splash pad.
“We appreciate the growing number of young people who are choosing to make Springdale their home,” said Mayor Doug Sprouse. “With our investment in revitalizing downtown, renovating and growing our parks and trails system and continued economic development, Springdale is an attractive location for people of all ages and stages of life.”
Finding family life
Young, educated corporate workers taking jobs with Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart vendors, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Tyson Foods often the age when they are raising families, said Ron Stinchcomb, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Harris McHaney & Faucette in Fayetteville and president of the Arkansas Realtors Association. The more popular subdivisions offer them four- and five-bedroom houses and community amenities such as playgrounds and swimming pools.
“Very often the families that move here, if they move here in the corporate world, they have a good income,” Stinchcomb said.
School districts are also feeling the increase in younger new residents. The Bentonville School District added 563 students between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. The district will open its second high school, West High School in Centerton, in the fall and an 11th elementary and fifth middle school for the 2017-18 school year.
The Walton Family Foundation has contributed to projects, including the development of museums in Bentonville, and to theater projects, such as with TheatreSquared in Fayetteville. The foundation’s Home Region Program also is interested in increasing the number of quality-rated child care centers, increasing the area’s walking and biking trails and improving the region’s health care and educational services.
“Our strategy in Northwest Arkansas sharply focuses on initiatives that make the region a desirable place to live and work,” said Karen Minkel, director of the Walton Family Foundation Home Region Program. “For our region to remain competitive in acquiring and retaining talent, we must support diverse initiatives with broad appeal, as well as amenities tailored to growing segments of the population such as young professionals.”