It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners, at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.
But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?
If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.
My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.
My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?
Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.
The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.
The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising. The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities. Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?
Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.
It looks terrific. Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.
The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:
Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.
These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?
The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.
Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.
So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plenitude permeates the city.
However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.
So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.
Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.
The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.
If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)
The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.
The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.
By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.
Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.
The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight, no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.