Bentonville's Fountain Plaza Touted as NWA 'Oasis in a Desert of Failed Dreams'

Jeannie Fleeman remembers when she and her husband, Bill, looked out over a greenbean field along state Highway 12 in Benton County back in 1983. Instead of a 50-acre patch of pods that lay before them, Bill Fleeman saw the land someday producing a different crop of green.

"Bill said, 'Jeannie, this is going to be a helluva deal and worth a lot of money,'" she said. "We didn't have any idea what we were going to do with it at the time. We were into homebuilding back then, but we had no intention of doing residential on the property."

Today, the once-rural acreage is in the Bentonville city limits, less than a mile west of Interstate 540 at the southwest corner of Southeast Walton Boulevard and Dodson Road. The property is home to the Fountain Plaza project, a mixed-use commercial development with retail, office and more.

The successful project, a profitable survivor of the northwest Arkansas real estate boom gone bust, stands apart from the casualty list of failed and struggling Benton County developments.

"Bill always felt like Bentonville and Rogers would eventually grow together," said Jeannie Fleeman, heiress to the fortune her husband made selling Car-Mart. "He was way ahead of his time. In the 1990s, he had architectural drawings done that remained largely intact."

Development of the commercial park Bill Fleeman envisioned began in 2004, five years after his death. To date, the $70,000 bean field investment has generated $9.9 million in land sales alone for Jeannie Fleeman's Dynamic Development Inc.

The sale of an 18,000-SF office building to Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas produced an additional $2.6 million in January 2006.

Her company still holds undeveloped parcels at Fountain Plaza totaling 14 acres and three commercial buildings approaching 100 percent leased: the 20,800-SF Signature Plaza retail center, the 28,300-SF headquarters of the company now called America's Car-Mart Inc. and the 13,390-SF Dynamic office building.

"It's an oasis in the desert of failed dreams, an example of development that was smart and made money," said Ramsay Ball, a principal with the Bentonville office of Colliers International.

The latest additions to Fountain Plaza are the 12,600-SF Crye-Leike building, which opened this summer, and 4,900-SF Christian Brothers Automotive. Footings were poured recently for the 20,000-SF Premier Dermatology project.

The 1.5-acre Crye-Leike site originally was bought for $935,000 in August 2005 by BancorpSouth Bank of Tupelo, Miss. Instead of developing a branch bank, the lender resold the location to Crye-Leike Realtors of Memphis for $1.1 million in August 2009.

Ramsay Ball views the recent activity at Fountain Plaza as a favorable sign the Benton County commercial market is restarting after the real estate bubble burst.

"We're seeing the stirrings of an awakening market, and the good locations are seeing the activity first," he said.

'It Couldn't Keep Going'

Jeannie Fleeman is ready to develop more buildings after a four-year hiatus now that the market has settled down. That decision to halt development activity dates back to a 2006 staff meeting where she announced:

"Guys, everything is booming so much around here, and it's overpriced and I can't see it going on. My vote, and I suppose it counts the most, but I think we ought to stop for a while and see what happens."

The cautionary pronouncement was made in the face of a northwest Arkansas real estate market that was still surging, with no apparent end in sight.

"That was such a strange phenomenon, and I just knew it couldn't keep going on," Jeannie Fleeman said. "People thought I was crazy to stop at the time.

"There are a lot of people who wonder why I am still in business and they're not. It's because I didn't push the envelope."

Fleeman said the timing of her decision to curtail development activity was similar to when Bill Fleeman opted to shut down their homebuilding business, Dynamic Enterprises, more than 30 years ago.

That move was made ahead of inflation-fueled interest rates that went ballistic and scorched the business landscape.

"I had the feeling the same as Bill did back then: It just can't keep going on," she said of the good times. "I thought everybody just seems to be in this fairy tale, and it can't go on. And it didn't.

"I'm just grateful I'm not a statistic. I was in a position where I could stop because I wasn't leveraged. I was very fortunate, and my heart goes out to people who weren't able to survive this."

ANB Stockholder

Fleeman was a big stockholder in ANB Financial, where Bill helped fund the startup and served as a director. Unlike many people associated with the fast-track lender, she emerged relatively unscathed when the $1.9 billion-asset institution was shut down by federal regulators in May 2008.

"That bank was booming, and the dividends were outrageous," Jeannie Fleeman said. "It was a lot of money.

"We were still a major stockholder [when ANB was closed], and that was bad. But by then, we had gotten our money back and then some.

"It was a really bad deal, but we were really fortunate to get out of it like we did. It looks like we were really lucky, but Bill was so dadgum smart."

Started in June 1994 with $5 million, ANB was headed to $500 million in total assets after only six years, piling up millions in profits along the way. Despite the early success, her late husband had misgivings, according to Jeannie Fleeman.

He resigned from the board of directors before his death in 1999, and she remained a passive investor until regulators closed ANB.

"Bill was happy to give up his seat on the board of directors because he was conservative and didn't agree with the aggressive direction of the bank," she said. "They were already doing things that Bill didn't feel good about, making big loans to people he didn't feel were good credit risks.

"We talked about it back then. I remember Bill saying 'The bottom is going to fall out of this one of these days.' "

The man who founded Car-Mart in 1981 and sold it for $41 million 18 years later was right. The company became America's Car-Mart Inc. in January 2002 when the venture made an initial public stock offering.

Financing a Feature

Real estate and lending were components of the Car-Mart venture as well as the Fleeman's earlier homebuilding enterprise. In both endeavors, financing sales was an important part of their business models.

"I have people who come up to this day and say if it weren't for you and Bill carrying this second mortgage we would've never been able to buy a house," said Jeannie Fleeman.

Sons Todd and Bart work with her today, and their Dynamic Development oversees construction work on the family holdings. The real estate portfolio includes Car-Mart projects scattered across Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Indiana.

The Fleeman family retained ownership of Car-Mart properties after selling the company to Crown Group Inc. of Irving, Texas. Now landlords instead of owners, they continue working with the company nearly 30 years after the first location opened in Rogers.

"I'm back to building Car-Marts again, and they plan to expand in the next two to three years," said Jeannie Fleeman. "We're opening the 100th store [in Opelika, Ala.] and No. 101 is planned for Springdale.

"These milestones are still happening, and I'm still a part of it."