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REGIONAL AIM: Mike Malone with the University of Arkansas compares the Springfield area and northwest Arkansas during the Feb. 22 annual meeting of the Springfield Business Development Corp.
Provided by Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce
REGIONAL AIM: Mike Malone with the University of Arkansas compares the Springfield area and northwest Arkansas during the Feb. 22 annual meeting of the Springfield Business Development Corp.

Regionalism garners attention at annual SBDC meeting

Arkansas official makes recommendations to focus local efforts

Posted online

Planning beyond city and county borders was a central topic promoted Feb. 22 at the Springfield Business Development Corp.’s annual meeting.

Mike Malone, vice chancellor for economic development at the University of Arkansas, was the keynote speaker for the SBDC event. He also served from 2006-16 as the president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit focused on improving quality of life, infrastructure, education and economic opportunity.

“Regionalism is about my favorite topic. I believe in it for bringing people together and capitalizing on opportunities,” Malone said at the event, which drew roughly 500 people to the Oasis Hotel & Convention Center, according to Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce officials.

The SBDC, which works to attract and retain businesses to the Springfield region, is the economic development arm of the chamber.

Like the northwest Arkansas metro, which comprises Benton, Madison and Washington counties, the Springfield metropolitan statistical area is growing, Malone said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, northwest Arkansas added 11,143 people from 2020 to 2021 and now exceeds 560,000 residents. The counties of Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk and Webster make up Springfield MSA’s population, which was 481,483 in 2021, up over 5,000 residents from a year prior.

“There’s a lot going on in these five counties,” he said. “Springfield is a really significant piece of it, but how you all fit together, how you all live together and how you collaborate, that’s going to dictate where you go.”

During his presentation, Malone asked the audience to raise their hands if they now call Springfield home but were born elsewhere. The response served as an example of migration.

“In northwest Arkansas, two out of three people that live there weren’t born in Arkansas. They moved in from somewhere,” he said. “In this room, I saw about 50/50.”

Council priorities
The NAC was formed in 1990 and has supported development of new roads, downtown squares and destinations such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, according to its website. Malone said the group’s initial three infrastructure priorities were set and addressed in its first decade of existence: four-lane highways, a new regional airport and running water to rural areas. One of those priorities, the Northwest Arkansas National Airport in Bentonville, was built in 1998 for $107 million, according to its website.

Today, the NAC has more than 100 dues-paying members, a 13-member executive committee and a full-time staff that Malone said “is dedicated to regional priorities.” He said the effectiveness of a similar organization elsewhere won’t be as successful if the workers are only committed to it as a side job.

Noting Springfield was listed at No. 104 of the top 150 places to live by U.S. News and World Report for 2022-23, he said the city and northwest Arkansas both struggled in desirability, based on the rankings. The index measures whether people want to live in a given metro area based on factors including quality of life, value and the job market.

“That’s certainly been a big motivating factor for our work within northwest Arkansas for branding and marketing,” he said, noting the NAC has previously invested in billboards promoting its region in areas such as Austin, Texas, and Seattle. “We need as many people who want to live there and work as we can. But it also just helps change the narrative in some of those areas.”

He suggested Springfield should define its region and determine how best to promote it, which could be its five-county MSA or the 10-county area that makes up the chamber’s Springfield Regional Economic Partnership.

Through its comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, the city of Springfield has connecting to nature as one of its key initiatives, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. The city seeks to leverage its brand as the “Basecamp of the Ozarks.” In that effort, the city is turning its attention to enhanced outdoor recreation opportunities, improved sustainability and a focus on ecotourism to connect residents and attract visitors to the region.

Be authentic
Chris Jarratt, chief creative officer and co-founder at Revel Advertising, was among those in attendance at the meeting. He said there’s a lot Springfield can learn from northwest Arkansas, but that regional promotion efforts need to be authentic.

“We have to make it our own thing,” he said. “We can’t just copy someone else.”

Northwest Arkansas was the site for the chamber’s annual Community Leadership Visit in September. Cody Danastasio, a partner with Arkifex Studios LLC, was among the 82 Springfield area businesspeople who went on the multiday trip. He said Malone’s comments reminded him of the strong regionalism he heard about while on the CLV.

“They realize they’re better together than going it alone,” he said, noting it’s a lesson that Springfield can stand to learn. “Our dynamic here is we have such a large metropolitan area, and we have to break some habits of everything being Springfield, Springfield, Springfield, and realize if we’re going to move forward, it’s got to be about the region. The region needs a name and needs an identity.”

Jarratt agreed.

“We value engineer a lot of things, but we have to really start to have some ownership over some unique aspects that makes us different,” he said. “That makes us have an authentic brand.”

Similar to Arkansas, Malone said the Springfield area has a lot of outdoor amenities, which can serve as part of a branding message.

“Know what you have and figure out what you’re missing,” he said. “Then fill in those gaps and sell it together. That’s how you’re going to win those big opportunities.”

The SBDC also coordinates the chamber’s annual Outlook series, which returns this spring. First up will be the Health Care Outlook, set for May 24 at the White River Conference Center.

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