Northwest Arkansas is going to look and function very differently 25 years from now with a projected population of about 1 million people, double the current number.
Planners expect much of the growth will occur in western Benton County along major highways that exist or will soon exist.
Jeff Hawkins, executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, noted that the area also is closer to the majority of jobs that are going to be available -- at companies such as Walmart and its suppliers, at J.B. Hunt in Benton County, and at Tyson Foods in northern Washington County.
The land is flatter west of Interstate 49 and is less expensive to develop, he said.
Hawkins said the growth is going to follow the infrastructure availability.
"That's a high-growth area between [I]-49 and, say, [Northwest Arkansas National Airport] and the area out that way. If they get sanitary sewer and they have adequate water out there and they address the roads infrastructure, that's going to be a very high-growth area. That's going to fill in," he said.
The bulk of the region's population lives and works along the I-49 corridor in or near the four largest cities. Planners expect those cities will begin to see more in-fill and vertical development -- taller buildings -- to achieve more density.
Unlike in most metropolitan areas, no single city dominates the region, and the four large cities of Northwest Arkansas are expected to remain the population centers, planners say.
"In 25 years, we'll have, potentially, four cities with over 100,000 population, two of those with potentially over 150,000 population," said Tim Conklin, assistant director at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. "We're not showing one individual city becoming a big, central core city. We'll have a polycentric region."
People will go to the smaller cities and towns when the large cities run out of affordable land, Conklin said. Northwest Arkansas has 27 other municipalities, he noted. Fayetteville is the largest city but represents about 18% of the region's overall population, Conklin said.
"You look at what I would call our big urban core cities -- Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville -- and the growth that they have seen, but now those types of numbers are occurring in Elm Springs, Cave Springs, Tontitown, Centerton, adjacent to the major urban cities," he said.
The sprawl will mean changes in the traditionally agricultural use of the land and in the culture of more rural living.
Mayors of the smaller towns note they already are growing but acknowledge that a newer, larger wave is coming.
Most have tried to prepare.
State highway officials are considering a new road to connect the Bella Vista Bypass and the Springdale Northern Bypass, or U.S. 412, via Northwest Arkansas National Airport. The 2040 Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Transportation Plan proposes such a north-south connector.
A study is looking at a huge oval-shaped area west of Bentonville and Arkansas 112 and east of Springtown, Decatur and Gravette. It goes from the Bella Vista Bypass in the north to U.S. 412 in the south. The airport sits roughly in the middle.
Widening and improving Arkansas 112, building an access road to the airport and completing the U.S. 412 Springdale Northern Bypass are projects planned for the area.
Gravette has three exits along the I-49 Bella Vista Bypass, which opened Sept. 30.
"It'll only be a few minutes down the road, and that's what we're seeing, people are moving in, developers are looking in this area," said Gravette Mayor Kurt Maddox.
Maddox said he took office in 2017 and was told then that the city needed to prepare for westward expansion.
"That's when we started preparing, started looking at what we want the city to be like," he said.
Maddox said the city has redone sidewalks and Main Street, completed water and sewer infrastructure projects, paved roads and focused on parks and the community center.
Twenty-five miles to the southeast, Cave Springs has grown from a small town on a winding country road a decade ago to being recognized by the state as a city of the first class in the shadow of the metro area, according to Mayor Randall Noblett.
Cave Springs officials expect growth to continue as Arkansas 112 is widened and made into a major four-lane roadway that will likely skirt the west side of town, improving access to the area.
"We approved 18 subdivisions with more than 1,850 lots in a city of 1,100 people," Noblett said. "That's why we were able to grow after 2008 -- infrastructure, to a large degree, was put in place."
Census data and estimates for small cities around the Bella Vista and Springdale bypasses show the towns have had large population increases since 2010.
Michelle Rieff, mayor of Highfill, said the proposed north-south connector would open up the area for growth.
"We know that road is going to come through Highfill. We don't exactly know where," she said. "But that is going to change Highfill drastically."
Rieff said she expects the new roadway to drive development south of the airport and the city wants to facilitate that growth by putting infrastructure in place.
Water and sewer
Having enough water and wastewater treatment capacity will be an ongoing -- and expensive -- challenge in a region where smaller communities have historically struggled.
Bethel Heights, West Fork, Decatur, Pea Ridge, Cave Springs and Centerton have all grappled with the issue. Cave Springs adopted a sales tax, and one of the primary reasons was to allow for sanitary sewer, Hawkins said.
Perhaps no community is likely to see as much change as Highfill in the coming years. Long a tiny farming community, it is now home to Northwest Arkansas National Airport and is largely a blank slate on which to build a city. The proposed north-south connector could provide needed access.
Rieff said Highfill has lots of open land and some of the few large parcels left in the county.
"I see industry developing on the west side of the airport. There's been some interest already," Rieff said. "That might be a manufacturing company. It might be some industry that complements the services of the airlines at XNA. I see a lot of housing.
"Our problem, though, is the money for the infrastructure," she said.
Without a business or industrial base, the city collects little sales tax and has limited property taxes to pay for wastewater facilities, Rieff said. Highfill does have its own sewer system, but the system is restricted by the state to 400 homes.
"We have one subdivision that we are about to finish that has 400 homes," Rieff said.
Highfill depends on developers to put in the infrastructure needed for subdivisions, she said.
"The big developers like us because we're easy to work with, and they know we want to grow," she said.
Highfill pipes sewage to Centerton and ultimately on to Decatur, Rieff said.
One potential solution is a regional approach to wastewater -- something like the Beaver Water District has done with drinking water.
To that end, some cities created the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority in 2002. The authority built a regional wastewater treatment plant in Bentonville that came online in 2010, and it's planning an expansion. The authority has nine member cities, and three -- Bentonville, Tontitown and Elm Springs -- currently send wastewater to the plant for treatment. Cave Springs is working toward doing so as well. The other member cities are Centerton, Highfill, Lowell, Springdale and Rogers.
Joining is expensive. A town could spend more than $500,000 to hook up to the facility, plus having to build all or part of a line.
Sewer capacity is one of the first factors that developers look at when considering building in a community. They may look elsewhere if there's not enough capacity or if the system needs a major upgrade in order to provide service to a piece of property, according to Hawkins.
Hawkins said wastewater systems can require costly and time-consuming fixes, and a town's development can stop as the facility is brought back into compliance.
A lot of the region's treated wastewater goes into the White River, which flows into Beaver Lake -- the main source of drinking water for Northwest Arkansas. Fayetteville's eastside plant discharges into the White River. Fayetteville also provides wastewater treatment services to Elkins, Farmington, Greenland and the southern part of Johnson and its growth areas.
Huntsville also discharges treated wastewater into the lake.
Other plants discharge into the Illinois River or its tributaries. The Illinois is considered a scenic river in Oklahoma, which has generated lawsuits in the past.
The four big cities have annexed land around them for decades. Over the last 20 years or so, smaller cities have extended their boundaries as part of an overall land rush.
Cities in Benton and Washington counties have increased their size by 33,518 acres since 2006, according to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. Gravette's land area in Benton County grew 280%, mostly from one annexation in 2012, commission records show.
Mayors of larger cites nearby were saying 15 years ago that their five-year plans included absorbing Cave Springs, Noblett said. The town had to grow to survive, he said.
"We are no longer that little city," Noblett said. "And Arkansas sees us no longer as a small town."
Cave Springs had 5,495 residents as of the latest census, making it the fastest-growing city in Arkansas by percentage since the 2010 census, Noblett said. It's the 63rd-largest city in the state, moving up 82 spots.
"We've got 21 cities that share at least one common boundary line," said Jeff Hawkins, the planning commission's director.
Some cities have failed in their attempts to grow by annexation, but the efforts are expected to continue.
Cave Springs lost its bid to annex an unincorporated area in July. The proposed annexation of about 2,800 acres included land between Cave Springs and Highfill.
Decatur unsuccessfully tried in 2019 to annex land along Arkansas 102 to the east, Arkansas 59 to Bethlehem Road to the north and the east side of Arkansas 59 to the south, including the newly built Simmons poultry processing plant.
Residents of the Hiwasse community asked Gravette to annex them in 2012 -- and Gravette agreed to do so -- when Bella Vista declared its intention to take them.
One area of Benton County that already has been the center of a dispute bordered Rogers and Cave Springs on the east, Bentonville on the north and Highfill on the west. The Rogers City Council voted in 2017 to hold an annexation election so it could obtain about 3,175 acres west of the city. The largest portion included nearly 2,838 acres between Rogers and Highfill, along with a smaller tract farther north.
Property owners petitioned Bentonville instead. The Bentonville City Council accepted a request from 39 property owners in the area to annex. The move cut a 2-mile-long and quarter-mile-wide strip out of a 4.4-square-mile area that Rogers had hoped to annex.
Rogers sued to stop the Bentonville annexation but lost. Cave Springs also was trying to annex some of the land.
Mayors of the smaller cities welcome the growth but want to limit the changes it brings. Regional leaders talk about managing the growth to avoid common urban woes.
"I do hope that our growth is better planned, and we don't have some of the problems that you find in other fast-growing areas like Austin, [Texas,] where traffic is a nightmare and housing has gotten expensive," said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer with the Northwest Arkansas Council.
"For some of these smaller communities, you're going to see more people that have lived there less than five years than people that have lived there their entire lives," Conklin said.
Noblett said he hopes Cave Springs can become a destination area with events such as craft fairs, music festivals and amenities like nice restaurants.
"I think a big part of that is embracing the historic downtown," he said.
Noblett said he'd like for new or replacement buildings downtown to be state-of-the-art inside but look like the early 1900s' buildings that surround them.
Maddox noted that Gravette residents have experienced the growth firsthand.
"It's a lot of change for the people living here, too. Our job is to manage that, understanding that growth is coming, but try to maintain that hometown feel as much as you can," he said.
Rieff said Highfill is a place where people want to live and that she expects housing options to range from smaller lots to multifamily housing to larger estates.
"Some people don't want change, but I think the change will be for the better," she said.