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Chamber report: Rogers lags in skilled job growth, downtown development

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

The City of Rogers is a shopping destination in Northwest Arkansas and the new Walmart AMP under construction in Pinnacle Hills is poised to be a gem the entire region will enjoy, but the city still falls short in expanded business and cultural opportunities, according to a new assessment report released this week.

The report was produced for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce by Atlanta-based Market Street Services.

The Community Assessment Report for the Rogers-Lowell Area was made public on Monday (March 31) and examines the area as a place to live, work and do business. The 43-page report outlines nine key issues discussed in the diverse focus groups assembled and interviewed for this assessment. This story will center on what focus groups noted about lagging skilled jobs growth and concerns over downtown development.

JOB SHIFT
While Northwest Arkansas has been among the fastest-growing economies in the country and the local unemployment rate is well below the state and national levels, the focus groups noted a sector shift in local job growth for the Rogers-Lowell area.

“The region has become a hub of retail and professional services activity while industrial development has stagnated,” according to the focus group statement in the report.

The Rogers-Lowell economy is in transition since the Great Recession. Between 2003 and 2013, Rogers-Lowell increased employment by 10%, trailing the 16.9% growth rate across the whole Northwest Arkansas region.  

“This likely comes as a surprise to many who have witnessed the rapid development in around the Pinnacle Hills area and frequently cited its growth during the public process as a sign of Rogers’ continued economic emergence within the region,” the report states.

This growth in retail is evident over the past decade comprising about half of the all retail jobs added in Benton County. At the same time, more than 2,200 manufacturing jobs and 3,500 transportation and warehouse jobs have been lost in the Rogers-Lowell area since 2003.

The residents in the focus groups noted they are happy to have more shopping and dining options nearby but these are low-wage jobs and add little new wealth in the region as whole. However, the city notes that the new retail venues draw visitors from around the region and have helped to boost tax revenue for the cities.

“Representatives from manufacturers in the community that participated in public input sessions noted difficulty finding qualified employees in a variety of positions, including but not limited to machinists, toolmakers, electronic and electrical technicians, and skilled trades ... In addition to workforce concerns, manufacturers expressed some concern that the community was more focused on developing retail and amenities to support its quality of life than on the needs of existing and potential future manufacturers in support of its economic development. They also struggle to fight perceptions at the state-level that ‘Northwest Arkansas doesn’t need any help’ and that it ‘has all the corporate headquarters and therefore doesn’t need any manufacturing investment,’” the focus groups noted in the report.

DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT
“When focus groups discussed the topics of entertainment, nightlife, housing, aesthetics, redevelopment, and general community attractiveness to different age groups, the conversation almost always came back to downtown Rogers,” the report states.

Behind traffic and transportation, downtown was the most mentioned community challenge identified by the survey respondents, according to the report. When asked what they would like to see different about the community in 10 years, survey respondents overwhelmingly cited downtown, the report states.

The City of Rogers said it has clearly heard this desire and is developing a new downtown master plan that will coordinate visions with insights gleaned in this Rogers-Lowell assessment.

Survey respondents were asked to rank four characterizations of downtown Rogers according to their opinion of what a future downtown Rogers should embody. The two characterizations that were most preferred were “civic and cultural heart of the community” followed very closely by “regional entertainment district.” Behind these two in order of importance to residents were “high quality residential neighborhood” and “employment center and economic engine.

Some focus groups were asked a similar question that also speaks to the residents vision for downtown.

They were asked, “If given the opportunity to inject 300 new residents or 300 new employees (jobs) in downtown Rogers overnight, which would help catalyze the type of downtown development that you feel is most appropriate?” 

Nearly every participant chose residents over jobs, which is a clear indication for community. They also mentioned that enhanced nighttime population (primarily residents) was more important to their vision of a vibrant downtown Rogers than enhanced daytime population (primarily jobs/employees). 

The assessment notes that while the focus groups hoped 300 new residents would catalyze additional development of restaurants (including outdoor dining), bars, music and performance venues, and private event spaces, they also hoped to see existing businesses stay open later in the evening, with additional street lighting to promote safety. 

Focus groups also spoke about needs for more green space downtown such as Frisco Park, which is also in need of an improved stage and better seating. They also suggested a visual buffer created by trees and other plantings between downtown and adjacent industrial areas. 

A lack of nightlife downtown and the distance from Interstate 540 are challenges going forward, according to the focus groups who said there are too many traffic lights and poor aesthetics along Walnut Street (the primary route) which create a major disconnect between downtown and Pinnacle Hills.

It’s important to note that Fayetteville and Bentonville each have vibrant downtown districts and are also located a good ways off of I-540. In addition, they each have a mature trails systems that links downtown to residential and other shopping and cultural districts.

Some of the focus groups and survey respondents said they would encourage young professionals who wanted more nightlife or cultural opportunities to reside in Bentonville or Fayetteville, or perhaps Bella Vista for golf or outdoor amenities.

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The focus groups and survey respondents were asked what they would like to see preserved and changed in downtown Rogers. The buildings were the frequently mentioned, according to the report.

Residents viewed “the Peachtree”  hotel as a major asset that perhaps represents downtown’s greatest untapped potential. Finding a suitable investor to bring new life to the hotel in the form of mixed-use development was viewed among the consensus top priorities for downtown revitalization efforts, according to the report. Although most preferred that it remain a hotel with some street-level retail, some suggested condo conversions.

Overall, residents feel strongly about the need for a more vibrant downtown, and see this as an important component to their vision for the community’s future, the report states.

Link here for the complete report.

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