BENTONVILLE — On the Bentonville town square, there's a statue of a Confederate soldier with the inscription "They Fought For Home and Fatherland." Would they be chagrined, these 19th-century Southern warriors, to find the fatherland today overrun with Yankees? Maybe not, when they saw the prosperity the newcomers brought. Bentonville booms, has been doing so for a couple of decades now, and seems likely to continue. So does most of Northwest Arkansas, for that matter.
There are other contributors, but the biggest reason for this growth is, of course, Walmart. We say "of course," because a person would have to be immensely unobservant not to notice that the world's largest commercial enterprise is headquartered in Bentonville, Ark. Some 1,200 to 1,400 companies have established operations in the Bentonville area specifically to sell to the giant retailer. As a prominent go-getter in nearby Fayetteville says, "When Walmart asked its vendors to come, and they came, it changed Northwest Arkansas forever. And for the better."
That's an interesting comment from a Fayettevillian, because to most Arkansans, for most of the state's existence, "Northwest Arkansas" meant "Fayetteville," home of the University of Arkansas, site of Arkansas Razorback football games, the biggest and liveliest town in the region.
It's still the biggest, but barely, and may lose that distinction in the 2020 census. Other cities in Benton and Washington Counties are growing faster — Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville — and Bentonville in particular has the kind of momentum that might threaten Fayetteville's status as the queen city of the Northwest. Already Walmart's home base, Bentonville is adding a big, new world-class art museum, and a center for the performing arts that will surpass Fayetteville's as the largest in the region. A lavish, almost unprecedented, hotel is in the works. Even in smaller ways, Bentonville excels. The Bentonville High School football team, which once competed several levels below Fayetteville, is now the state champion of the top classification of Arkansas high school football.
"I don't know of another city anywhere that has a brighter future than Bentonville," says Mayor Bob McCaslin. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, being built by Alice Walton of the Walmart Waltons, and scheduled to open in November, "is on a scale that few people comprehend. This is on a Moscow, Paris or London scale. It will be the premier collection of American art, housed in an architectural wonder. It's a first for Bentonville, Northwest Arkansas, the state and the world. It's estimated to draw an additional 250,000 visitors a year to the region. New businesses will be born catering to cultured tastes, new restaurants will open. A new hotel is being developed close to the museum. The only one like it today is in Louisville, Ky., and that hotel is rated number one in the U.S. by Conde Nast."
Bentonville has already undergone enormous change — "Over the last several years, one out of every seven homes sold in Arkansas was sold in Benton County," McCaslin says — but what's coming, according to the mayor, will be "the greatest change the city has experienced in a short period of time."
If Fayetteville city leaders begrudge any of Bentonville's good fortune, they hide it well. "What's good for Bentonville is good for Fayetteville," says the ebullient Lioneld Jordan, Fayetteville's mayor. "I still believe Fayetteville is the hub of Northwest Arkansas, but the cities of this region have grown together."
Jordan says Crystal Bridges will bring visitors to Fayetteville restaurants, the most varied in the region, and Fayetteville's entertainment district, energized by the U of A students. Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, agrees. (Clark is the man who said that Walmart had changed Northwest Arkansas forever and for the better. He's also the former attorney general of Arkansas.)
"Northwest Arkansas has become a region, not just cities connected by a highway," Clark says. "We don't look for the differences, we look for the similarities." Such as, the benefit that everyone derives from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, built in 1988 after years of struggle, with considerable input from the Walton family. Northwest Arkansas used to be hard to get to, by air or ground. Now, "We have three nonstop flights to New York every day," Clark says.
And it's not as though Fayetteville lacked attractions of its own. "The University of Arkansas is now one of the highest-ranking research institutions in the country," Clark says. "We have great medical care here, great parks, a great quality of life." When he was growing up (in East Arkansas), Fayetteville was a sleepy little university town, Clark said, just as Austin, Texas, was once a sleepy university town. He thinks Fayetteville is changing the way that Austin did.
Clark tactfully doesn't dwell on it, though he could, but Fayetteville, as a university town, is a little freer-thinking than the rest of Washington and Benton Counties, a little more tolerant of different lifestyles. And Washington County is wet. Even with all the out-of-staters who've moved in, Benton County remains technically a "dry" county, though it's popularly said to be the wettest dry county in Arkansas. Getting a drink in Benton County is easy, if not legal. Obviously, the wet-dry issue is still considered dangerous by politicians. The mayors of both Bentonville and Rogers decline to take stands.
Fayetteville residents also are considerably more likely to vote Democratic than their neighbors. A growing population in the Northwest, combined with a shrinking population elsewhere, necessitates changes in congressional-district boundaries, to assure that the districts remain roughly equal in population. A considerable row developed while the state legislature was redrawing the boundaries early this year. One proposal would have separated Fayetteville from its Northwest Arkansas neighbors in the Third Congressional District and placed the city in the Fourth Congressional District, which is mostly South Arkansas. Committed to regionalism, Northwest Arkansas officials were roundly opposed.
Presumably, the proposal would have helped the Democratic Party by moving more Democrats into the Fourth District, the only district now held by the Democrats. The Third District is widely considered to be Republican for evermore. Even so, Clark and Jordan, both Democrats, opposed the plan — their Republican counterparts in the area, were, of course, equally strongly opposed — and Clark went to Little Rock to lobby against it. The plan was defeated.
Some Fayetteville residents aren't as friendly toward their Northwest Arkansas neighbors as Clark and Jordan are. When a reporter told a Fayetteville friend that he'd spent the day in Benton County, she expressed sympathy. And, although elected officials in both cities deny knowledge of it, some Fayetteville residents look down on Springdale the way some Little Rock residents look down on North Little Rock. During one of Fayetteville's periodic battles between developers and preservationists, a preservationist suggested that people who wanted Fayetteville to look like Springdale should go live in Springdale.
Clark acknowledges that Fayetteville has a stronger sense of the past than its Northwest Arkansas neighbors. "The others weren't big enough in the past to have that keen a sense," he says. (He adds that Little Rock is almost too big to appreciate the past as well as a town of Fayetteville's size.)
With 1,200 seats, the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, is now the largest performing-arts venue in the region, but it won't be much longer. The center's board announced in December that a new 2,200-seat center would be built in Bentonville. Fayetteville will get a new 600-seat theater adjacent to the existing Walton Center. The proposal did not sit well with the Fayetteville city attorney, Kit Williams, who said the center's agreement with the city of Fayetteville would be violated by the construction of a larger center elsewhere. He threatened litigation, and a resolution was introduced before the Fayetteville City Council that could have endangered the new plan. But the resolution was defeated by a 6-2 vote. Williams, who said he was concerned about the quality of the offerings at Fayetteville after a larger center was opened in Bentonville, has quieted down.
Both Mayor Jordan and the Fayetteville C of C were opposed to the resolution and to litigation over the arts center. Unfailingly positive — he posts a positive quotation on Facebook every day — Jordan says the cities of Northwest Arkansas should always be working together, not fighting each other. Clark says he's thrilled by the development of the new 600-seat theater. "It gives us a size of venue that means we can book different kinds of acts," Clark said, and will put more people in the entertainment district each night.
One for all and all for one is the official line of Northwest Arkansas. Mayor Greg Hines of Rogers, which is next door to Bentonville, said he stood beside Bentonville Mayor McCaslin when the announcement was made that the new performing arts center would be built in Bentonville — stood there, even though, Hines says, "Rogers wanted that thing too."
The new center will be good for the whole region, Hines says, just as Springdale's new minor-league baseball team is good for the whole region.
A lifelong resident of Rogers, Hines was a member of the City Council before he became mayor in January. That's when the previous mayor, Steve Womack, went to Washington as the new congressman from the Third District. A conservative Republican, like all Benton County officeholders, Womack was probably best known for his role in allowing Rogers police officers to help enforce federal immigration laws. The city's large and growing Latino population, in an area that had been all-WASP, was not happy with this.
"Diversity is important for the city's continued growth," Hines says, but the growth in the Latino population brought new challenges. The city has had to train emergency personnel to communicate with people who don't speak English, he says. And, "When the Latinos came, we saw crime patterns we hadn't seen before." Organized drug dealing increased, and so did gang activity. "We're just trying to foster a safe community," Hines says.
All the other cities in the area had someone or something special to lean on, Hines says. Springdale had Tyson Foods and Jones Truck Lines, Fayetteville had the University, Bentonville had "Walmart and the philanthropic spirit of the Walton Family." Rogers lacked that kind of support, Hines says. "We all just stay involved here. It's not one person and not one entity. Examples of public and private partnership, city and school district partnership, are phenomenal. The high school baseball team plays on a city ballfield. The school district and the city partner in providing tennis courts. This has been going on for 30-plus years." And in that time, Rogers has become "the retail and restaurant center for the region."
Rogers gets spillover from those crucial elements in other cities too. Many Walmart and Walmart-related employees live in Rogers rather than Bentonville. Many of the Latino workers attracted to Northwest Arkansas by the poultry plants of Tyson and others settle in Rogers as well as Springdale.
Of all the growing towns in Northwest Arkansas, Springdale is the growingest, according to Mayor Doug Sprouse. "We've had the biggest numeric growth in the state since 2000 — 24,000 people." And a big part of it has been Latino. The city is now around 35 percent Latino. Rogers has a similar percentage.
"There are sure challenges" when the Latino population grows that much that fast, Sprouse said. "I think we've handled it well." He was a member of the school board for 10 years, while the schools struggled with the problem of students who didn't speak English. The Springdale School District is the second largest employer in town, behind only Tyson. The City of Springdale has passed a tough graffiti ordinance, to deal with a problem largely brought to the community by Latinos. Nonetheless, "The diversity has been good for Springdale," Sprouse says. "I grew up here, and it's a much different place now. I'm glad my kids got a chance to grow up with kids different from themselves."
He's proud of Arvest Ballpark, home of the class AA Northwest Arkansas Naturals. "It's good for the whole area. We've had nights when Arvest sold out at the same time the Razorbacks sold out."
Someday — not yet — Latinos may vote in sufficient number to alter the conservative-Republican ethos of the Third District. (Though not as numerous at Latinos, other ethnic groups have arrived in Northwest Arkansas too, usually because of Walmart — Indians, Asians, African-Americans.)
There's been Republican sentiment in Northwest Arkansas since before the Civil War, but the area was still generally Democratic until a bunch of Republican Midwesterners began arriving in the 1950s and '60s, some looking for cheap retirement property, some plant owners looking for cheap labor. The Third District went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction in 1967, to the surprise of many observers, and it's only gotten more Republican since. Benton County voters are the most partisan in the state.
And why is that? Mayor McCaslin says it's because there are a lot of people like him. "I am a subscriber to the founding principles. As a retired businessman, I believe in a free market. I don't think anybody is 'entitled' to anything. This area doesn't believe that government is the answer to all problems. [Has any person, Democrat or otherwise, ever said that government is the answer to all problems?] Walmart should be a poster child for entrepreneurism. Sam Walton used his own ideas, his own capital. He didn't have subsidies. ... In the '50s, you probably couldn't tell the difference between the parties. Now the difference is clear."
But what if the difference could be made less clear? Steve Clark thinks that a Democrat could still be elected from the Third District, "but it'd have to be a Blue Dog Democrat."
"When people move here, they want to stay," Mayor Sprouse says. "Even in a bad economy, it's still better than other places. We're going to work hard to make the prosperity continue. We have infrastructure needs in Northwest Arkansas. We need to expand [Interstate] 540. We need a Highway 412 bypass for those heading east and west across the top part of our state. Funding has to follow the cars. I know other areas have needs too, but 'build it and they will come' doesn't always work. We need to take care of the areas that are producing jobs."