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.)
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