Editor’s note: Evert Nelson is the visuals editor at The Capital-Journal. He attended an intercity visit to northwest Arkansas, which was organized by the Greater Topeka Partnership and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. These are his observations.
This year’s intercity trip to northwest Arkansas not only brought together not only leaders in Topeka but also Lawrence for the four-hour ride to the south.
The trips, at least for Topeka, aren’t a new concept. City and county leaders, Greater Topeka Partnership staff and any member of the public willing to pay the ticket price have taken trips to other cities to gather knowledge on a particular theme or concept to be replicated back home.
In 2014 it was Tulsa, Okla., to learn about its riverwalk development. The last one before the COVID-19 pandemic began was Montgomery, Ala., in 2019 to learn about its diversity and inclusion efforts.
This year northwest Arkansas, or NWA as the locals call it, was chosen for the efforts by cities to brand the region as a whole.
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So, what actually happened and why should you care?
The knowledge shared between city leaders may translate into changes in Topeka and Lawrence.
Through listening to Arkansas city chambers and elected officials, underlying themes bubbled to the top.
One is the importance of having big business headquartered in the area giving heavy investments into the community. Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt are all located in northwest Arkansas and have accelerated growth on numerous fronts, including the construction of a new regional airport.
Next is the ability for cities to work together to achieve overall economic growth. Local leaders believe what’s good for one city is good for all of northwest Arkansas.
Another is having a reason to visit the area, or a “draw.” For Northwest Arkansas, it’s outdoor enjoyment and cultural infusion.
The trail systems alone have helped to brand the region as a mecca for mountain biking. Dozens of world-class routes have been created to take advantage of the landscape topography. That includes the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 37.5-mile stretch of trail connecting Fayetteville to Belle Vista.
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Culture-wise, the region has some offerings you may not have expected. Springdale officials in particular liked to tout its Marshallese population as second only to the small island chain. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville also was emphasized as helping to attract different demographics. And artwork and vendors can also be seen almost anywhere you look.
That’s great for Arkansas. But what about Topeka and Lawrence?
Seeing how other regions work together for common goals could be a start for local officials, which also could include Manhattan.
What runs through all those cities? The Kansas River. Maybe thinking back to the Tulsa trip and its riverfront development could spark new interest as a draw to the region.
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Just like Arkansas, biking is becoming a popular sport in Kansas. Events like Unbound Gravel, formerly known as the Dirty Kanza, and the formation of National Interscholastic Cycling Association teams popping up across the state show the interest is there — even if mountains aren’t.
We may not have the Walton family, but we do have corporations in the animal health corridor and a future innovation campus with the Plug-And-Play Topeka cohort that could make our area a hub for businesses.
As seen in northwest Arkansas, if a business chooses to build in one city, it helps the whole region.
Embracing our heritage through public artwork and celebrating such historic landmarks as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site are examples of ways we are showing what makes us unique.
We also share similar ideas on attracting a new workforce. Just like Topeka, northwest Arkansas is offering people incentives to move to their communities. Having a reason to want to stay seems to be a key.
There are a lot of takeaways for city and community leaders to take from this trip. Aspects of working as a region, importance of being welcomed at the table, recognizing what makes a place unique and bringing in commerce are just a few.
Visiting northwest Arkansas inspired many ideas. Which ones come to fruition, and how, are yet to be determined.
Evert Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-231-9565.