Think about what makes a city's downtown district vibrant and vital.
It has a thriving arts and culture scene - museums, theaters and music venues - that provide entertainment and fuel for the creative spirit. It has high-quality schools, thriving retail stores, restaurants and ample green space that preserves access to nature. Weekend festivals and evening events attract crowds into the city.
A robust system of trails provide transportation and recreational opportunities that enhance the urban experience. Most importantly, it has people who work and live in prospering, affordable and diverse urban neighborhoods.
Through years of strategic planning and investments in downtowns, Northwest Arkansas has created a network of desirable neighborhoods by connecting these amenities in our city cores.
People who live here can see the results - whether they are browsing bookstores and bike shops, eating lunch from a food truck in a downtown park or getting ice cream with their family. And they can read about them in national publications like Outside magazine or Architectural Digest, which just named Bentonville's Onyx Coffee Lab on its list of the country's most beautiful coffeehouses.
New data also quantifies the increased vitality of our local downtowns. A recent report commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation shows downtowns in Northwest Arkansas continue to see strong population growth and increased demand for residential and commercial development.
The report found downtown Bentonville has the largest resident population and Fayetteville is experiencing the fastest growth. All five downtown areas boasted strong millennial populations and most have growing development rates.
It also revealed emerging challenges. A shortage of multifamily housing units, despite strong demand for housing, is driving prices for residential properties higher in each community, a trend that may limit residents' future accessibility to downtown living.
This moment represents both a challenge and opportunity for the region. Ensuring downtown living and its amenities are accessible to all will set our region apart from other top desirable places to live.
Downtown Bentonville is booming. It has experienced steady growth in both commercial and residential property values and increased permits for construction of single-family homes that show "strong demand for living space" downtown. Residential average sales per square foot have jumped more than 200% in the past five years, raising concerns about affordability for people of different income levels, including young professionals.
Fayetteville's extremely low residential vacancy rates in 2017 - 1.8% for one-bedroom units and 0% for two bedrooms in multi-family units - confirm the city remains highly attractive but is in need of additional housing. Its expanding student population, the report found, "contributes tremendously to the growing vitality of the area, and helps make it a place to live, work, and play." Residential average sales prices per square foot rose almost 13% from 2012 to 2017.
Residents of downtown Rogers have the highest median annual income, $36,671, of the five communities, signaling the potential for growth in downtown amenities. The addition of more restaurants, schools and entertainment venues points to increasing demand for residential space. But rising housing costs are threatening affordability, as prices per square foot have risen more than 100% over the past five years.
Siloam Springs is still in the early stages of implementing its downtown master plan. It has the smallest downtown population in the region and will require increased investment in residential and commercial properties to create a vibrant city center, the report showed. Demand for existing multifamily homes is strong and the shortage of housing points to the need for additional residential investment.
Springdale is "poised for growth" with the construction of new trails and the opening of several new restaurants and bars, the report showed. With a median resident age of 28 years old, it boasts the youngest downtown population and the second highest number of residents. Like Siloam Springs, Springdale is also still in the early stages of implementing its downtown master plan. Downtown residential property prices have jumped almost 50% over the past five years amid a lack of new residential construction.
Learn more in the full report: Measuring the Vitality of Downtowns in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs and Springdale