Arkansas population center continues north and west

Arkansas’ population shift to the northwest is reflected in U.S. Census data and in decisions based on that data, such as the distribution of state legislative seats.

Census results also reveal a specific location showing the change: the state’s “historic population center” – the place where an imaginary, flat map of Arkansas would balance out perfectly if every resident of the state stood on it at his home.

The center never went west of Perry County or further north than Mayflower in Faulkner County for 100 years between 1880 and 1980, according to state calculations. The State determines these centers after each decennial census.

The equilibrium point in Arkansas is now north of Morrilton at Lake Overcup in Conway County, the state’s Geographic Information Service office calculated on Dec. 17 based on census figures from 2020. The last center follows a stable northwest trajectory for each census since 1980.

“Before long, if lawmakers in urban centers in northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas agree on something, they’ll get it through the Legislature,” said Bill Stovall, who was president of Arkansas House in 2005 and 2006. The concentration of representation in these urban areas and northeast Arkansas will become too large for the rest of the state to compensate, he said. declared.

“If they can make a political alliance, they can set tax and tax policy,” he said.

The partisan divide between Republicans in northwest Arkansas and a delegation from Pulaski County in central Arkansas that is still largely Democrat will make little difference, Stovall predicted.

“The political divide in the state will be less of a Republican-Democratic divide than an urban-rural divide,” he said.

The state has 23 Democrats in the 100-member House and parts of central Arkansas are Republican-leaning, he said. Stovall was a Democrat during his four terms in the House.

Thirteen members of the House of 100 live in Washington or Benton counties. New district maps approved on November 29 will bring that number to 17. Legislative districts are redrawn after each census to equalize their populations.

Pulaski County, the state’s most populous county and the home county of Little Rock, the state’s largest city, will have 13 House members. Neighboring Faulkner County will have six. Any measure that delegations from those counties agree on would need 15 votes out of the remaining 64 members of the House to pass in that chamber. Five other House seats will be wholly or partially in Craighead County. Four more will include all or part of Sebastian County, which includes the state’s third largest city, Fort Smith.

Benton County also secured a new 35-member Senate seat, giving Benton and Washington counties a combined total of six, with another district that includes southern Washington County.

The ongoing change in state policy is reflected in the maps of the state’s congressional districts. In 1982, Benton, Washington, Carroll, Crawford, and Madison counties were five counties in a 20-county 3rd Congressional District dominated by Fort Smith, then Arkansas’ second largest city.

These five counties are now the only ones to remain entirely within the district after new boundaries were drawn earlier this year. Part of Sebastian County also in the district includes Fort Smith, which is now the third largest city just ahead of Springdale, according to census results. No part of another county is in the district

Also in 1982, voters in Benton County cast 26,322 ballots in that year’s gubernatorial race. Washington County’s total in the same contest was 29,705. The two counties totaled 7.1% of the vote that year.

In the last gubernatorial race in 2018, Benton County received a total of 77,534 votes. Washington County voters cast 65,863 ballots in that race. The two counties combined accounted for 16% of the vote – nearly one in six of all ballots cast. If the state’s population growth had been uniform, this percentage would have remained the same.


Many more factors are playing into the shift to the northwest than the growth in northwest Arkansas, said Shelby Johnson, the state’s chief information officer.

“You can trace this back to the mechanization of agriculture in the 1960s,” Johnson said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “As late as the 1940s and 1950s the population of the state was in the east.”

People go to where the jobs are, he said. Agriculture was the state’s most important employment sector before machines such as cotton combines and other combines took over from row crops.

“In the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1940s, agriculture and the people who lived on it were rooted in Pine Bluff and Helena,” Johnson said. State calculations show that the center of the population landed as far east as present-day Sherwood in Pulaski County after the 1960 census, then fell back north of present-day Maumelle in the census. following. The center has moved north and west in every census year since, records show.

Growth in the Jonesboro area in northeast Arkansas is pulling the center north, even with the strongest growth in the west, Johnson said.

The main practical effect of the change is economic and political, said Mayor Kevin Smith of Helena-West Helena. Smith is a former state senator. Prior to that, he served in Washington, DC on the staff of the late Senator Dale Bumpers, D-Ark. Smith successfully ran for mayor in 2018.

“A century ago, Helena was what northwest Arkansas is today,” Smith told Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson in 2019. “That was the game. state where people moved because there were jobs. We were among the best cities in the country for the hardwood industry with several large sawmills. The city on the banks of the Mississippi River enjoys ‘access to this waterway.

Smith said he was not surprised at the location of the new population center when contacted by phone on Tuesday.

“It really sounds like it,” he said, referring to the politics and economics of the state moving away from the east. “But I believe in the pendulums. There is currently a couple who bought one of the historic homes here and are restoring it who worked for Walmart. They can do what they do remotely and work from home.”

Her son, Smith said, has returned from California and is buying a house in town for the same reason: relatively lower house prices coupled with the ability to work from home thanks to better and improved internet connections.

“Northern California is beautiful, but first it was the house prices and then the wildfires came,” Smith said.

Rising house prices could block the northwest trend in central Arkansas.

Groups such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Northwest Arkansas Council, which identify and work on regional issues, have cited rapidly rising house prices as a serious threat to the continued growth of Northwest Arkansas.

The average selling price of a home in Benton County or Washington has increased 44% over the past five years, according to the Arvest Bank Skyline report from August 31. The average home price jumped 16.2% from January to June compared to home prices from January 2020 to June 2020, according to the Arvest report.

“If people can work where they want, it all depends on education and quality of life,” Smith said.

People will work and live in areas with good schools, affordable housing and access to basic necessities such as clean water, which his city has plenty of, he said.

“If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere, and we are already seeing it happening here,” he said.

Arkansas’ Fastest Growing Cities

These cities increased by at least 50% between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. censuses and had a population of at least 1,000 in 2020:

Cave Springs (Benton County): 217.8%

Brookland (Craighead): 147.5%

Southside (Independence): 100% *

Goshen (Washington): 96.3%

Centerton (Benton): 87%

Austin (Lonoke) 69.8%

Tontitown (Washington): 63%

Prairie Grove (Washington): 60.8%

Elm Springs (Washington): 53.8%

Bentonville (Benton): 53.4%

Gravette (Benton): 52.6%

* Southside was incorporated as a city in 2014

Source: National Office for Geographic Information Systems

CORRECTION: Joneboro is in Craighead County. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong county.

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