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Natural Connection: Chamber leadership group heads to northwest Arkansas for first time

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For the first time in three years, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Visit hit the road.

It was a relatively short trip in terms of distance, as 82 Springfield area businesspeople headed to northwest Arkansas – a first-time destination in 28 years of the annual program. While the CLV typically centers on a single city, this year’s multiday trip, held Sept. 26-28, focused on a region. All four destinations included in the CLV agenda – Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale – range 100 to 150 miles from Springfield.

The Natural State trip follows the chamber’s decision last year to examine its own region. The Springfield-focused agenda was the second for the chamber’s program, as it stayed in the Queen City in 2010.

Matt Morrow, chamber president and CEO, said northwest Arkansas was among destinations that had been on the CLV shortlist for years.

“One of the topics that has really emerged a lot in recent years – even before the pandemic – is a significant focus on regional collaboration,” Morrow said. “That ends up driving us to find areas that have made that their bread and butter and really excelled in that area. Some people specifically pointed to northwest Arkansas as an example of that.”

Panel discussions filled much of the CLV agenda with topics including regional collaboration, building and leveraging a regional brand, and attracting and retaining talent.

Lean on strengths
“The reason that we do this every year is because any community that wants to challenge itself and wants to continue to hopefully be on the leading edge for their citizens and their businesses is going to need a benchmark and really ask good, tough questions about what is working in other communities and regions,” Morrow said.

With northwest Arkansas, Morrow said CLV participants saw a region that is among the fastest growing in the country with a robust business sector and diverse economy.

“It has great regional collaboration that seems to be integral to their success and has really done a great job of identifying and leaning in on their existing strengths,” he said.

Gary Schaefer, managing partner of FORVIS LLP’s southern Missouri practice, said one of those strengths for northwest Arkansas is its bike trail system, which covers over 250 miles.

“That’s a huge draw for people who love the outdoors,” he said.

Bentonville has even in recent years dubbed itself the mountain biking capital of the world, said Erin Danastasio, executive director of Springfield nonprofit the Hatch Foundation. She attended a panel session centered on that branding. She said Bentonville representatives were asked about how much effort it took to reach that decision.

“They said they just decided one weekend that was what we were going to be, and the community had buy-in,” she said, adding people came to town and experienced the trails for themselves. “They were kind of proving to themselves that’s what they were.”

Building a regional brand in Arkansas has allowed them to market and promote their region to attract prospective residents and businesses, Morrow said.

“They consider themselves one region, and they effectively talk about themselves that way and promote themselves that way to the outside world,” he said.

Danastasio said she also noted the shared vision of the three-county metropolitan statistical area, which exceeds 560,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The NWA metro area population has been growing at roughly 2.3% a year for the past dozen years, according to the data, nearly triple the nearly 0.9% growth rate of the Springfield MSA.

“They don’t look at themselves as Bentonville, Rogers or whatnot,” Danastasio said. “They all work off of each other, and if it’s a win for one, it’s a win for all.

“That’s something that we, being Springfield, need to be thinking of ourselves also as a region,” she said, pointing to the 2021 arrival of e-commerce retailer Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) in Republic as an example of a recent regional win.

Watching growth
The Arkansas trip was the fourth CLV for Schafer, who said the region’s growth is largely tied to the presence of three major employers: Walmart Inc. (NYSE: WMT), Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN) and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. (Nasdaq: JBHT).

“In order for them to be successful as those companies grew, they needed to attract great talent to their area,” he said. “They figured out that to attract great talent to the area they had to improve quality of life in that area.”

Schafer said he learned on the trip that much of the original funding for the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit formed in 1990 and designed around promoting and developing the region, largely came from Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt. The three companies are among the 100-plus members of the organization, which has supported development of new roads, downtown squares and destinations such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion and Arvest Ballpark, according to its website.

“Outdoors is a big asset of ours in southwest Missouri and is a big asset of theirs,” Schaefer said, adding northwest Arkansas notes its region as a great place to live with natural beauty that is highly accessible. “We absolutely have that as well. We maybe have it better. They don’t have gorgeous lakes nearby and we do. But we have comparable natural resources, and we have an opportunity to collaborate with them more than we have.”

Morrow said the door is open between northwest Arkansas and the Springfield area to identify and take advantage of the unique strengths that each community in the region brings to the table.

“One thing that seems very evident is there’s an interest in broader regional collaboration between our two regions,” he said. “We heard great feedback from our friends in northwest Arkansas about how they would like to work with us on shared projects and priorities in the years and decades ahead.”

Morrow said he wasn’t ready to share what those opportunities look like in the short term.

“In a meaningful way, I’ll better be able to tell you about that in a couple of years,” Morrow said. “That’s typically the amount of time it takes for some of those things to really start to emerge.”

Danastasio said branding is still a struggle for Springfield. But she’s hopeful the trip inspired others beyond herself to take inspiration that communities like Springfield, Branson, Nixa and Ozark can be united in a vision toward regionalism.

“We don’t want to be northwest Arkansas. We want to be our region and be ourselves,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from them and see what they’ve done and come back with our own version of it.”

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