FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A new Northwest Arkansas Council program offers out-of-state remote workers $10,000 and a new bike/art institution membership to move to the area. The council’s president said this’ll fill an economic need, while others said the pandemic’s created needs that render the promotion inappropriate.

Nelson Peacock is the NWA Council President, and he said applicants should work in a STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. He said a Council-conducted study revealed the area has a shortage of these workers, and it’s something the group’s wanted to help address for some time.

“We have significant deficits there, and if we don’t address them over the next 5-10 years, it will create issues in our economy,” Peacock said.

Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, Peacock said, but the program is about filling some of the more than 10,000 job openings reported by the Council with people who can sustain a longterm economic vision.

“Either sign a lease or purchase a home within the next six months,” Peacock said.

In the few days since the pilot program launched, it’s received a slew of applicants, Peacock said.

“We’ve already had 1,600 applicants,” Peacock said.

There isn’t a defined number of people who can be accepted to the program, according to the website. Here in Northwest Arkansas, the COVID-19 pandemic’s forced some businesses to close, and others are just hanging on.

“We’re operating at 20-30% of what we used to, and that’s barely enough to survive,” said Bo Counts, the owner of Pinpoint Bar in Fayetteville.

Counts said the program is “tone deaf” considering the context of what’s happening to people who already live here.

“It’s kind of a huge slap in the face when there are businesses that are already here that would do a backflip for $10k just to keep their business in tact,” Counts said.

An online petition with hundreds of signatures calls for the NWA Council to donate millions to poverty grants instead.

“I believe that a grant like this one from the Northwest Arkansas Council illustrates a breath-taking level of indifference,” read part of the petition’s description. “In the midst of a pandemic, with thousands of NWA neighbors struggling to just pay the bills, this organization decides to try and attract new talent to the region and gives away a million dollars, while doing nothing for the poor.”

Peacock said the Council already gives out grants and other services to bolster the economic standing of many other groups in Northwest Arkansas.

“We understand there’s a lot of need right now, but we think this is a small piece of what we do,” Peacock said. “There are other organizations to help in those other areas.”

The funds, which are given from the Walton Family Foundation, total more than $1 million and require applicants to move to Northwest Arkansas in the next six months.

Peacock said the job creation and innovation opportunities mean everyone could benefit in the end.

“When we come out of this pandemic, we’re gonna be stronger for the coming years,” Peacock said. “That’s going to lift everyone up.”