Alice Walton: Working to Bring the World to Arkansas' Door

Although Alice L. Walton no longer resides in the state, her vision and efforts continue to bring the world to Arkansas.

Walton, only daughter of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton, now makes her home in Texas, but her influence on Arkansas not only lives on; it continues to grow as her dream of a great museum of American art takes shape.

While Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville likely - and rightly - tops most people's list of her grand initiatives, it's just the most visible.

The 16th-richest person in the world with a net worth of $20.6 billion, according to Forbes' latest accounting, was the driving force behind the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill, which opened in 1998 with President Bill Clinton doing the dedicating honors.

Asked to describe Walton's role in the development of the $107 million airport, Scott Van Laningham, executive director and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, was succinct: "In a word, critical.

"She was the first chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, and it was the council that went around to the cities and counties and urged them to create the Airport Authority as the separate public entity to proceed with the studying, looking for the site, all of that early work."

That was in 1990. Alice Walton, now 60, and other Walton family members helped raise funds to start building the airport, and the Llama Co. of Fayetteville, an investment firm then headed by Walton, underwrote an almost $80 million bond issue to finance its construction.

"Her firm sold those bonds at a time when we didn't have a contract with an airline; we didn't have a contract with a single car rental company; we didn't have a contract with a hot dog vendor," Van Laningham said. "We were able to sell those bonds basically by selling the vision of what was possible in northwest Arkansas."

In 1999, the Airport Authority board named the terminal building after Walton, and she was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.

In 2005, Walton announced plans to build Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on Walton family property. The 100-acre site was dedicated in 2007, and construction of the museum continues. The estimated cost of the museum, first put at $50 million, has risen, and the opening, first scheduled for 2009 and then 2010, has been pushed back.

The museum's 2008 IRS Form 990 shows more than $66 million has been spent on construction so far. Putting a value on the museum's collection is difficult. However, the Forms 990 indicate that Crystal Bridges has spent at least $223 million on art acquisitions between 2006 and 2008. The value of the collection, which includes masterworks by Charles Willson Peale and Winslow Homer, likely is much higher.

The museum estimates that 250,000 people will visit in its first year.

A less well-known Walton initiative is Camp War Eagle, which opened in 2006 on 383 acres on Beaver Lake in Benton County. The camp, for children 7 to 17 from Benton, Washington, Carroll and Madison counties, was also the result of Walton's efforts, with help from the Walton Family Foundation.

The camp "is a result of the vision and dream that Alice had," said Sam Torn, the camp's executive director. "She was the complete driving force behind the formation and founding of the camp."

Camp War Eagle is more than summer recreation with a Christian emphasis, Torn said. Walton wanted "to create a place that could identify needs that existed in the lives of these children and create a program that followed up with these children on a year-round basis," he said. The camp offers access to tutoring services and a mentoring program.

The camp has served 9,000 children so far and is set to serve another 4,000 this summer.

Asked what Alice Walton's influence had been on Arkansas, Ed Clifford, president and CEO of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, said, "I think what she's done is present us with a different vision of ourselves. ... And what Alice has done for northwest Arkansas - and for all of Arkansas, I suspect, when Crystal Bridges opens - is give us a different personality. I think that's her major contribution to Arkansas."

What is that personality?

"It's a much more global personality," Clifford said. "It's a personality that puts us directly in contact with 18 destination cities now from an airport. It's a personality that will make us one of the finest American art museums anywhere."

He said, "When I think of what Alice has accomplished, it's always about vision," adding, "she never forgot from where she came."