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As Economic and Cultural Vibrancy Expand, What’s Next for Northwest Arkansas?

December 18, 2020
Karen Minkel
Over the past five years, the region has become a more vibrant place. Now, there’s more work to do.

What does the word vibrant mean to you? It’s an adjective, but it’s also a feeling one gets in the presence of a place and people where possibility is palpable.

Northwest Arkansas is a place where young entrepreneurs pitch their vision to community members under the lights of a downtown festival; where after a day on world-class trails, mountain bikers can peel into the local high school for a tune-up by students learning engineering-by-doing; where murals from cutting-edge Native American artists splash across historic buildings and impromptu outdoor performances turn an evening walk into a night of musical wonder. Our community is vibrant.

A strong sense of community lies at the heart of the Walton Family Foundation’s mission in Northwest Arkansas — to build upon what has always made this area special and work closely with the community to help it evolve into one of the nation’s best places to live for everyone — no matter their age, income or background.

Five years ago, the foundation set out to work with leaders from across Northwest Arkansas to focus on creating and sustaining a better quality of life in our community. More than 350 organizations received grants to support their efforts toward this goal. In the past five years, their collective work has led to remarkable progress.

We need to listen to and follow a diverse set of leaders, while working hand in hand with them, to create more equitable access to economic and educational opportunity.

One result of this effort? Northwest Arkansas is staking its claim as a global destination for the arts — and one that celebrates the region’s diverse voices. By showcasing Marshallese fashion designers, supporting the Latinx Theatre Project and introducing ambitious projects like the Momentary, we expand the understanding of what great art can be and who can access it.

The region also leverages its natural assets, developing infrastructure with intentionality. To maximize access to active, healthy transportation and preserve thousands of acres of green space, the foundation worked with local organizations to build what is now a network of nearly 500 miles of trails, including projects like the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve and Kessler Mountain.

Opportunity begins with a strong education. Today, Northwest Arkansas families have access to a growing number of nationally ranked schools with distinct educational models — including Arkansas Arts Academy, Ignite Professional Studies at Bentonville Public Schools, Rogers Honors Academy at Rogers Public Schools and Thaden School. The work of community-led organizations is also providing more equitable access to these institutions by helping families whose students may be the first to attend college navigate the application process and pursue future opportunities.

And just as a generation of entrepreneurs lived their own American success story here, Northwest Arkansas is now an emerging hub for entrepreneurship in the Heartland, with resources that startups can use to harness innovation and scale great ideas into growth enterprises.

As we conclude our most recent effort, the foundation is looking ahead to the next chapter. Efforts must be flexible— responsive to the moment while also anticipating the region’s future needs. In addition to looking at what has gone well over the past five years, we also ask: What have we learned? What can we do better?

As Northwest Arkansas works through challenging times, how does the region ensure it is a vibrant, opportunity-filled place to all who call it home? From the disparate impact of COVID-19 among communities of color to educational achievement gaps by income, the data tells us there is work to do.

To cultivate a truly vibrant Northwest Arkansas, we will need to listen to and follow a diverse set of leaders while working hand in hand with them to create more equitable access to economic and educational opportunity.

Our work is rooted in the belief that those closest to the challenges offer the most creative, workable solutions. We can’t predict what comes next, but we can move with a renewed sense of urgency to ensure the region’s growth is inclusive, enabling everyone to shape the region’s future and benefit from our quality of life.

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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