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Losing those little-town blues 

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The northwest corner of Arkansas, Benton and Washington Counties, was still quiet and roomy 30 years ago. A retiree come back to the region would find much has changed.

Once lightly populated, Benton County is now the second most populous county in the state, and growing, with a population of 221,339 in the 2010 census, up a whopping 44.3 percent from 2000. Pulaski, in Central Arkansas, is still the biggest county in the state and Little Rock still the biggest city, by a wide margin, but Washington and Benton Counties are now home to four of the 10 largest cities in the state. Fayetteville, with a population of 73,580 is third, behind Little Rock and Fort Smith; Fayetteville's next-door neighbor, Springdale, is fourth at 69,797; Rogers is eighth, at 55,924, and Bentonville is 10th at 35,301. (The population of Bentonville was 2,900 in 1950, when Sam Walton opened a store there.)

School districts have grown proportionately. The Springdale School District's enrollment is second only to the Little Rock District's in Arkansas. Teams from Benton and Washington Counties used to be overmatched against Pulaski County schools in Arkansas high-school athletics. Now they do the overmatching.

This growth is even more remarkable in that it has come while much of the rest of the state, Southern and Eastern Arkansas particularly, has been losing population rapidly. The contrast is stark.

During the political campaigns this year, a Northwest Arkansas politician said that going from Northwest Arkansas to South Arkansas was like going to a different country, and he didn't mean it in a complimentary way. The remark was criticized, and it was clearly demagoguery, but demagoguery with an element of truth in it. Drive from Memphis to Bentonville, and you notice that even the highway rest stops become cleaner and better maintained as you move north and west.

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