Walmart defined Bentonville, Arkansas, for decades. Now the small town is ready to become a tourist destination for young people and outdoor enthusiasts.
- The small town of Bentonville, Arkansas, has been Walmart’s headquarters for 50 years.
- Longtime residents, leaders and real estate agents say the city has changed a lot.
For 50 yearsthe small town of Bentonville, Arkansas has been known as the home of Walmart Headquarters. Today, the city reported by the Census Bureau has increased by more than 50% since 2010 is building a new reputation as a place for tourism and young professionals.
This reputation has hundreds of millions of dollars behind it, thanks to Walmart, the Walton Family Foundation and individual members of the Walton family. Local leaders, however, told Insider that the entire community has embraced the changes.
“When I moved here in 2005, people were buying a meal going into a meeting at Walmart and buying a meal going out of that meeting,” said Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville, whose job it is to bring tourists to a city historically known as a center of business, told Insider. “We had one retailer and two restaurants downtown. Now we have 16 restaurants and eight retailers.”
With 63 miles of mountain biking trails, Bentonville leaders said the town “mountain bike capital of the worldOther attractions include two state parks within 30 minutes of town and an annual half-marathon. Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman said the city’s museums “draw more tourists than the bike”. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art annually, compared to 250,000 cyclists on the city’s trails.
The first five kilometers of cycle paths were added in 2007 – the same year voters approved a 10-year obligation to expand the municipal airport, build and improve parks, and provide general infrastructure maintenance.
According to data collected by Visit Bentonville, the number of homes in the town has increased by 150%. Prices have also soared, Trina Hammond, who lead a team at Keller Williams Realty, said Insider. She owns a house in downtown Bentonville and has been a real estate agent for 15 years.
“One of the biggest real estate changes is that downtown home prices have more than doubled in the last five years. People want to be able to walk to bars, restaurants, museums and bike paths,” said Hammond, adding that northwest Arkansas is reshaping the way people view the state. “The big surprise that transplants in places like California have is that they expect cheap land and housing, but as the city has exploded, it has pushed them towards more affordable housing in suburb.”
The decades-long rebranding has attracted visitors who in the past may have driven by Bentonville without thinking twice. Chris Moody, a traveling freelance writer who travels thousands of miles a year with his wife in a self-built motorhome, told Insider the couple recently took a detour just to see Bentonville after hearing about the expansion and the city’s investment in the arts, in particular the Crystal Bridges Museum.
“We had a great time visiting the museum. It was worth the trip,” Moody said. “Bentonville plays a clear role in attracting young families looking for a modern quality of life without having to live near a big city.”
Walmart is still a major influence in the growth and evolution of the city
Walmart is the elephant in the room with any discussion of Bentonville’s growth. Service businesses are the largest employers in Bentonville, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Orman attributed this to Walmart building its new headquarters in the city; in addition, more than 1,600 Walmart suppliers had offices in the city as of 2018against 445 in 2001.
And even funding for community projects that doesn’t come from Walmart often comes from its founders. OZ Trails and the holding company Runway Group, which have played a leading role in the development of trails and biking in northwest Arkansas, including Bentonville, are led by the grandsons of Sam Walton , Steuart and Tom. In a 2018 press releasethe Walton Family Foundation said it invested $74 million to build 163 miles of trails in the area.
Walmart and many Waltons also support the city’s museums: The Crystal Bridges Museum was founded by Alice Walton and received $20 million from Walmart in 2011 to cover free admission to the museum, while the Momentary, a contemporary art space, open in 2020 with financial support from the Walton Family Foundation.
Another Walton nonprofit, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, funded a three-year grant to NorthWest Arkansas Community College for the first bicycle assembly and repair technician program be accredited by the Bicycle Industry Employers Associationwhich creates educational partnerships for bicycle technicians.
The program aims to support the influx of competitive and casual cyclists. The first cohort of 23 students began last fall, Megan Bolinder, the college’s dean of labor and economic development who leads the technician program, told Insider. “Students will take nine courses to receive the certificate, and then if they wish, the courses can be used for an associate’s degree in general technology at NWACC, which will then transfer to two universities in Arkansas,” a- she declared.
Longtime residents have mixed feelings about the city’s growth
Jack Lloyd has spent his entire life in Bentonville, as have his children and grandchildren. Born in 1964, he told Insider he estimated the city’s population was around 3,500 at the time – barely larger than the student population he now oversees as Principal of Bentonville High School.
“Bentonville really started to change around 2004,” when Walmart salespeople started moving their operations to the city, Lloyd said. He added that although the growth has been explosive, “beyond anything that could be planned”, it has been very well managed.
“You couldn’t build roads and houses fast enough, and we were adding 100 to 200 students a year in high school,” he said. But the rural environment of Bentonville works in its favor. “Sleeper communities and farms that weren’t developed became places for new homes and businesses without causing major problems,” he said.
Although Lloyd said many locals complain about increased traffic and housing prices, it’s a matter of perspective. “People in Sacramento think it’s nothing. And for locals, you can make more money than other parts of Arkansas. I spent 32 years as a teacher, vice-principal, and director, and I’ve never seen so many opportunities for students to work with the companies that have come to town,” he said.
“When I was a kid, downtown was where things happened,” Lloyd added. “That changed a few decades ago, when Walmart built a new headquarters off the freeway. But with museums, restaurants and bike paths all centered downtown, it’s once again the place happening.”
Elizabeth Ganey has mixed feelings about Bentonville’s rapid growth. She and her husband moved to town to work at Walmart 11 years ago when the company offered them jobs after they got their MBAs. “There are opportunities here that my kids wouldn’t have had 10 years ago,” she told Insider. “But I’m not a crowd person either, which is what you have to deal with in Bentonville.”
To avoid increasingly crowded neighborhoods and downtown streets, Ganey and her husband moved with their three children to an 11-acre property between Bentonville and nearby Siloam Springs. She said living outside of the city proper allows the family to “pick and choose” which parts of northwest Arkansas they visit for different needs. “The Bentonville library is the best in the area. Our kids go to a private school in a town further away, and we take the kids to Siloam Springs for crowd-free fun,” she said.
Ganey is now the marketing coordinator for St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Bentonville, while her husband works at a tech startup. She said her choice is common for Walmart headquarters alumni. “There are a lot of consumer data startups in the region because they can provide services to Walmart headquarters, local Walmart stores, and Walmart suppliers,” she said.
Conor Brown and Shane Smith live near Bentonville and told Insider they are regulars on its trails as active members of the area’s mountain biking community. They welcomed the new brand of the city.
“It’s no secret that Walmart is trying to attract young people to its headquarters,” Brown said. “Creating a high quality environment and brand in which to live, work and play is part of this strategy.”
“Bentonville’s aspirations are clear, but so is their investment in all aspects of the city,” Smith added. “They’ve grown from a few trails to massive infrastructure, which caters to recreational and experienced riders, and my girlfriend and I regularly enjoy taking advantage of what Bentonville has to offer.”
Griffith and Orman supported their claim of “world capital”. “Eighty percent of mountain bikers are recreational cyclists,” Griffith said. “Our trails feature art installations, family and competitive options, and a trailhead that leads directly downtown. Places like Cherokee, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma are reaching out to us to build their own networks of trails. We are happy to help you share our experience with them.”
“The 2016 World Summit basically put us on the cycling map,” added Orman. “We have one of the few trailheads that doesn’t require a car to get there. Our trails are open year-round, which is very appealing to mountain bikers in snowy regions.”