When approaching Fayetteville, Ark., from the south, you see the University of Arkansas on a hill, appearing to dominate the city. The image provides a good metaphor for the college town, set in the once quiet northwest corner of Arkansas. "The university is the thing in Fayetteville," says Ron Rockwell, 72, who retired to the city six years ago. It's the thing that retirees always mention, along with the small-town pace and the lakes, hills, and trails that come with life on the edge of the Ozarks' highest mountains.
But Fayetteville today has a lot more than just the university and the outdoors. It anchors one of the South's fastest-growing regions, a series of Arkansas towns heading north that have boomed with the fortunes of chicken processor Tyson Foods in Springdale, trucking firm J. B. Hunt in Lowell, and retailer Wal-Mart in Bentonville. Each town has its own shopping, culture, and activities. "I think of them as pearls on a string," says Betty Haines, 69, who has lived in Fayetteville since 1993.
At the north end is Bella Vista, once a retirement community started in the 1960s on the Arkansas-Missouri border that now boasts a population of nearly 30,000 and its first elementary school.
Still, Fayetteville remains the area's core, long the largest town with old, tree-filled neighborhoods, cultural events, and night life. The Walton Arts Center, named for Wal-Mart's founding family, features Broadway shows and marquee-name concerts. The North Arkansas Symphony is a 70-member orchestra that presents a full season of concerts. And the city library has won national recognition for its community programs, which recently helped it earn tax hikes, including a temporary one to build a striking new "green" building.
Residents say Fayetteville is a small southern town at heart, one with a strong Christian culture. A conversation with a stranger often leads to the question of where you attend church. "But people let you live the way you want to live," says Haines, a retired teacher who last lived in Houston. "I think it helps that there is a university here."
Sami Kopelman, 60, focused on college towns when considering where she'd want to retire—more specifically, schools with sports teams that would play her alma mater, Louisiana State University. That puts her at odds with a different religion, the University of Arkansas's Razorback sports.
She and others say the area's population boom is perhaps their biggest concern. Traffic keeps getting worse, and rapid job growth suggests it won't slow soon. It's still a good life, says Kopelman, but that's a double-edged sword. "We don't want so many coming here that we end up with a metropolis."
The university, too, has been growing, helping to keep the city center vibrant. That's especially apparent on Dickson Street, which runs from the university campus to downtown and hosts restaurants, shops, and clubs. The expanding university also makes room for seniors with free tuition for classes. "I call it their 'antiques' program," says Rockwell, a retired Navy officer. "We're the antiques."
ABOUT FAYETTEVILLE, ARK.
Median home price: $163,000
January average temperatures (high/low): 44/24
July temperatures: 89/69
Source: OnBoard LLC