Community leaders from Lawrence, Topeka to spend week in Northwest Arkansas learning about area’s growth, development

photo by: Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

A view of Fayetteville, Arkansas, from U.S. Interstate 49. A delegation of leaders from Lawrence and Topeka are traveling to Fayetteville this week to learn more about the Northwest Arkansas economy.

We are off to the Land of Walmart to learn. I’ll be honest. That phrase causes worry in my household because the lesson usually involves the upper boundaries of our credit limit.

But this isn’t a household trip. It is a community trip, and we aren’t going to an actual Walmart. We are going to Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart was founded and its corporate headquarters remain.

About 130 community leaders from Lawrence and Topeka will be in Northwest Arkansas today through Friday as part of an economic development and community-building program that is jointly hosted by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Greater Topeka Partnership, which is a conglomeration of Topeka’s economic development, visitor and business organizations.

“I think there are some differences between our area and Northwest Arkansas in terms of big corporate presence, but I think some of the similarities are striking too,” Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce, told me. “I’m interested in finding best practices and bringing them back here.”

In other words, the trip probably won’t be about trying to figure out how to land the equivalent of the worldwide headquarters for the country’s largest retailer.

Of course, it is worth noting that Northwest Arkansas really didn’t “land” the Walmart corporate headquarters. The region grew it. Walmart was founded in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962, and as it opened a few more stores at a time, it opened its first distribution center and its corporate headquarters in Bentonville.

Walmart has become so large and dominant that it is hard to think of it as a homegrown business at this point but, nonetheless, Northwest Arkansas — just three and a half hours from here — did grow one of the most successful businesses of all time. The region still has efforts underway to grow new businesses, and the Lawrence and Topeka groups will spend a good amount of time learning about those efforts.

I’m making the trip with the Lawrence and Topeka groups. I’m going, in part, because I think exploring ways to grow the Lawrence economy is extremely important and should be reported on. But I’m also going because I think it is proper for the media to be part of a group that involves so many elected officials. All five Lawrence city commissioners, plus the city manager, and two of the three Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to attend the trip, which has a retail price of about $1,200 per person. I’ll plan on filing stories from the trip periodically and may even post some updates on my Twitter feed @clawhorn_ljw.

I’m also interested in learning more about the University of Arkansas on the trip. I don’t know much about the Razorbacks, other than, like KU, the university is a member of one of the Power Five athletic conferences. It doesn’t have as cool of a chant as “Rock Chalk,” but its calling of the hogs chant is pretty fun. It involves the phrase “Wooo, Pig, Sooie.” (It is particularly fun to say at a dinner party, and then when asked if you are an Arkansas fan, reply “No, why do you ask?)

But, at first glance, it appears the University of Arkansas has an interesting story to tell. It is producing an enrollment story significantly different from what has been happening at KU. Enrollment figures from the universities’ Common Data Set programs, show that in 2008-2009, KU was by far the larger institution with KU at just over 29,000 total students systemwide and Arkansas at just more than 19,000. By 2016-2017, the two universities were roughly equal at about 27,000 students. In 2021-2022, Arkansas has about 29,000 students, while KU has shrunk to just under 27,000. The local delegation is scheduled to include a few representatives from KU. Hearing more about that Arkansas transformation could be a highlight of the trip.

The University of Arkansas is located in Fayetteville, a town roughly similar in size to Lawrence. It will be interesting to explore there too, including its downtown and entertainment district. Fayetteville has just under 94,000 people compared with Lawrence’s approximately 95,000 people. But I suspect the differences also will be important to note. Fayetteville isn’t its own metro area, but rather is surrounded by several towns — including Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and others — that form the Northwest Arkansas metro area that numbers more than a half-million people in population. It is a rapidly growing metro area, which surely has something to do with the University of Arkansas’ recent growth. From 2010 to 2020, the population of the metro area grew 24.2%. That’s a far greater growth rate than any metro area in Kansas has produced. Kansas City grew by 9.1% during the decade, while Lawrence grew by 7.2%, Wichita 3.9% and Topeka shrunk by 0.3%.

That said, the Northwest Arkansas metro area is still not a real large metro in terms of population. For comparison sake, the Northwest Arkansas metro is about 100,000 people smaller than the Wichita metro area and about 1.5 million people smaller than the Kansas City metro area.

But another way to look at it is that the Northwest Arkansas metro area is about 200,000 people larger than the combined Topeka and Lawrence metro areas. Of course, Topeka and Lawrence aren’t officially combined as a metro area, but it is worth thinking about how the two areas are connected or may become connected in the future.

It is notable that the two communities are coming together to do this trip jointly. While the economic development organizations of the two cities have had a good working relationship, a joint project of this nature is unusual for the communities. I’m not predicting that Topeka and Lawrence will become some economic couple, but I’m also not ruling it out. The question of how Lawrence fares as a standalone metro area that is so closely located to two other metro areas — Topeka and Kansas City — is a topic that may deserve further thought. For the meantime, though, Lowe told me it makes sense to have partnerships like this in place.

“Economic development, and even housing issues, are really more of a regional effort these days,” Lowe said. “It makes sense for us to take advantage of opportunities to build on already strong partnerships and relationships.”


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