Arts Projects, Downtown Commercial Development Transforms Bentonville

Despite a sluggish national economy and a regional real estate market that has fallen quite a ways from the white-hot heyday of the mid-'00s, downtown Bentonville is booming.

The area has undergone something of a transformation during the last few years. Many restaurants, galleries, offices and retail operations have opened, and three major upcoming projects are only going to speed the pace of downtown development.

Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will be opening Nov. 11. The 21c Museum Hotel, a $28 million, 130-room boutique hotel and museum, is slated to open in 2012. And at some point in the near future, the Walton Arts Center will build a 2,200-seat performing arts center in or very near downtown.

(Click here to read more about the Bentonville WAC venue.)

(Click here, here, here and here to read more about Crystal Bridges, or here for more about 21c.)

These projects are driving a lot of the increased interest in downtown development, said Ramsay Ball, principal with Colliers International's Fayetteville office.

"We're seeing it already," he said. "We're seeing a lot of interest in the area; we've already got a lot of restaurants that have been announced in the downtown area and, of course, some hotel activity. It will be very, very positive."

Ball said he has a couple of transactions in downtown Bentonville in the works right now. "So I can tell you personally that things are happening there, and we're seeing really quite a bit of activity," he said.

That activity is likely not going to be limited to retail development, restaurants and entertainment venues, he said. "Hopefully we'll see increased density with residential units to make a more vibrant, round-the-clock activity," Ball said.

Terri Trotter, COO of the Walton Arts Center, said the combination of the new WAC performance venue, Crystal Bridges and 21c would help continue the development of an entertainment and arts district downtown, acting as anchors and spurring more businesses to open.

"When you have people coming out to performances and things like that, restaurants, things to do, places to get a drink and hang out are a big part of that experience, so it sort of brings that business in as well," she said.

Several new restaurants have been announced recently, said Daniel Hintz, executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. These include Tusk & Trotter, Tavola Trattoria, the Pressroom and Flying Fish, all of which are in the works for 2011 openings. In September, the Wal-Mart Visitors Center will reopen on the square after an expansion and renovation project is complete.

 

'Building for a While'

While the Crystal Bridges/21c/WAC trifecta is a major reason for the growth in downtown Bentonville, it's not something that happened overnight.

"This has been building for a while now," Hintz said.

"Back in 2005, the city of Bentonville created a downtown master plan, and soon after that plan was adopted, Crystal Bridges was announced," he said. "I think that's a great example of the city taking a leadership side on downtown development."

Downtown Bentonville Inc. produces and partners on hundreds of events in the city every year. These include a farmers market that has grown tremendously, the Bentonville ArtsFest and First Fridays, a themed event with food and live music that runs once a month from March through November and attracts thousands of people to the square.

"Certainly arts and culture have been a major economic driver in the revival and transformation of this downtown," Hintz said.

Bentonville has "a vibrant community of young professionals and even older professionals like me, who like to get out and enjoy the culture of the area, which is improving every day," Ball said.

And the WAC expansion is also likely to boost commercial development in Fayetteville. The WAC board announced it would develop a 600-seat theater adjacent to the existing 1,200-seat Baum Walker Hall at the corner of Dickson and West streets.

"We are thrilled about the development of a 600-seat theater," said Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. "It gives us a size of venue that means we can book different kinds of acts, which means more people in the entertainment district each night, because we could have several shows going on at the same time or have a show virtually every night.

"We have a lot of programming right now, but there's room to grow, so that's a very strong positive," Clark said. "And it does mean new investment in Fayetteville, not only food and beverage and those kinds of service industries, but also, when people are in town they're going to buy gasoline and shop."

The WAC has also increased its footprint in Fayetteville through its recent acquisition of the Arkansas Music Pavilion, a portable venue set up in the parking lot of the Northwest Arkansas Mall. The WAC did not disclose how much it paid for the AMP, but the board approved the purchase for up to $400,000.

Allyson Twiggs Dyer, director of the Rogers Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the WAC's expansion was a win for the whole region.

"Many times what we realize in our industry is that the tourist, the visitor, doesn't see any city lines, so the more they can do in the region, the better off I think we all are," she said.

Anytime a city in northwest Arkansas has a big project that draws visitors, "good things happen to us; whether it's Fayetteville or Bella Vista or wherever, that is good news for all of us. Because the more we're on the national stage, the more we're getting national attention, the more someone sitting in another city thinks, 'I ought to start a business there,'" she said.

 

More Programming

The announcement in December that the WAC would place its 2,200-seat performing arts center in Bentonville caused a bit of a stir. After the expansion is complete, Fayetteville, where the Walton Arts Center opened in 1992, will no longer be home to the region's largest performing arts venue.

In response, Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams raised the possibility of litigation, stating in a letter that the plan to build the new center in Bentonville was a violation of the agreement among the city, the University of Arkansas and the WAC. He stated that the WAC had a fiduciary duty to Fayetteville that would be violated by the construction of a larger facility elsewhere.

But that idea didn't get any traction with the UA, the city or the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. A resolution to renegotiate the contract to ensure quality programming would continue at the Fayetteville facility was defeated 6-2 by the city council.

Williams didn't rule out entirely the possibility of litigation against the WAC board but said it was unlikely.

"I was somewhat concerned about the issue of building the major auditorium in Bentonville and what it might do to the usage of the now only auditorium which is in Fayetteville on Dickson Street," Williams said.

"And I guess only time will tell what happens. We've been assured by the board of the Walton Arts Center and its executive director that we'll have the same programming as we have now here even after the other one is built," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see how that pans out."

Trotter said the expansion would only add to the amount of programming the WAC would be able to book.

"Right now, part of the issue that we have is we're maxed out, so what we have here is what we have," she said. "There's no ability to do more events here because there just aren't any more dates on the calendar. So once we move into two spaces, it really increases the opportunities for activity."

The 600-seat space the WAC plans for Fayetteville will mean that worthy but smaller events won't have to be passed over, Trotter said. These include cabaret shows, comedy and other types of events.

"You don't really want to book something into a 1,200-seat hall that you think you're going to sell 500 tickets for," she said.

The option of a smaller venue "opens up sort of a set of programming that we have chosen not to do because we really haven't had an appropriate venue for it," she said.