Growth at Benton Brings Commercial Development

A person looking at economic development in Benton would be hard put to see any of the slowdown that's hitting many parts of the nation.

Saline County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, increasing its population by 30.1 percent in the past decade to now rank as the eighth-largest county with 83,529 persons, according to the 2000 Census.

Benton, the county seat, has seen its share of that growth. The city now has 21,906 residents, a gain of 20.5 percent over the 18,177 recorded in the 1990 Census.

"The residential [real estate growth] spawns the commercial [market]," said Dan Moudy, a co-owner of Phillips-Moudy-Duke Real Estate of Benton.

Nearly 1,700 building permits have been issued for new single-family home construction in the past decade.

And there's a lot more on the way. Since the beginning of the year, through July, 119 single-family permits have been issued by the city with a valuation of $14.8 million and 26 commercial permits with a valuation of more than $9 million.

"It's almost like someone flipped on a light switch," said Mark Gillis, executive director of the Benton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years. "Once we got close to that 20,000 mark, people started looking at us for commercial development."

The chamber itself has seen remarkable growth, adding 120 new members last year.

And the town once thought of only as the home of the mental hospital is changing its image to a town that offers wholesome living, quality education and great community support.

The chamber is mounting a "Benton First" campaign to encourage as many people as possible to not only live in Benton but to work in Benton.

With an unemployment rate of 3 percent, that may sound difficult, but Gillis is working on informing residents of the cost involved in working in Little Rock — such things as extra cost of auto insurance, cost of gasoline and parking.

It's his belief that a person could make $2-$2.50 less an hour working in Benton and still take home as much money as he would by working in Little Rock.

New Developments

If what Moudy says about the relationship between residential and commercial growth is true, Benton can expect a lot more commercial development. Four new upscale subdivisions are being developed to meet the needs of the city's growing population.

More expensive houses indicate there are more people with money to spend. And that's what commercial developers want to see.

Longhill Village on Highway 5 north of town offers 250 lots centered around a golf course. Houses in the new subdivision will go for $180,000 up to $500,000-$600,000.

River Ranch off Peeler Bend west of town is a restricted subdivision with a three-acre minimum lot size.

Hurricane Lake Estates, an upscale, gated residential development just outside Bryant on Highway 5, came to Benton via annexation after Bryant voters turned it down. The new addition ultimately will be the site of 900 homes.

Finally, Heritage Farms on Boone Road, 425 lots south of Interstate 30, is being developed in eight phases. Homes there start at $120,000.

Military Road Booming

So what commercial development has followed all this residential growth?

The most obvious may be along Interstate 30, but the greatest growth has actually been along Military Road.

A short drive down booming Military Road shows a lot of construction. The area has, over the past couple of years, seen several retail operators set up shop — JCPenney, Goody's and Stage are among them, along with Kroger's and a host of fast-food restaurants.

This year, O'Reilly Auto Parts opened a 6,400-SF store at 906 Military Road. Down the street at 1621 Military Road, Office Depot is putting the finishing touches on a 20,515-SF store.

At 1125 Military Road, Alcoa Credit Union is building a 5,125-SF office. And Summit Bank is set to construct a 5,700-SF branch at 1800 Military Road, part of a planned Summit Plaza.

Although it's not technically a commercial development, a new 30,000-SF library just off Military Road at Green and Smithers streets is in the works for Saline County. Bids currently are being sought and will be opened Sept. 20. The project is expected to take 12-18 months to complete.

Walgreen's closed on its property on Military Road at Carpenter Street last week. Construction on the drug store should begin in the next few weeks.

Benton is far more than its Landers auto dealerships and restaurants along I-30, although there's been plenty of growth there also.

Landers is the largest dealer in the state and recently added more lines in northwest Arkansas to its growing stable of car and truck dealerships. Landers has modernized its area dealerships, adding about 10 acres to each of them and has even air-conditioned the service area of its GMC facility.

Perhaps I-30's biggest project on the drawing board is a new Home Depot. A spokeswoman at Home Depot confirmed that the company plans to build in Benton, but apparently the deal hasn't been signed, so she could not comment further.

The Catalysts

Saline County Memorial Hospital, the city's largest employer, and the Tinseltown development on I-30 were prime catalysts for much of the growth during the past three years, according to Tom Baxley, co-owner and principal broker for Phillips-Moudy-Duke.

The hospital has expanded several of its specialty areas, bringing in new doctors and support staff. Total employment at the hospital is 450.

Ashley Co. of North Little Rock developed the 38-acre tract fronting Interstate 30 across from the Wal-Mart Supercenter that's home to Tinseltown. When it opened, the 50,000-SF, 14-screen theater was the third-largest in the nation.

In the past three years, Ashley has added several restaurants at the development, including Weng's Chinese Buffet, Cafe Santa Fe and Dixie Cafe, along with CiCi's Pizza, Firehouse Subs, Shakey's Custard and several small retailers. Rick Ashley said the company was hoping to ink a deal for another anchor tenant in the next few weeks.

Other new Benton restaurants include La Hacienda next to Wal-Mart and Colton's Steakhouse.

Regional Airport

Although it would not be in Benton, area developers see a new regional airport near Bryant as being a significant player in bringing more businesses to Saline County.

A public hearing is set for Sept. 13 at Bryant. The airport, designed for corporate, commercial and private airplanes, will have a 5,000-foot runway with room to expand to 6,000 feet.

Gillis said the airport will be a first-class facility for air-freight services and corporate planes.

An extra bonus for Benton will be the conversion of its current municipal airport into an industrial park. The 54-acre airport along I-30 already has all the necessary infrastructure in place, Gillis said.

Benton Construction 1990-2000

Year —?Total —?Commercial Construction —?Single Units —?Multi-family Units —?New Residential Construction
2000 —?$41.5 million —?$9.2 million —?235 —?16 —?$30.7 million
1999 —?31.5 million —?6.5 million —?200 —?5 —?23.2 million
1998 —?26.5 million —?9.7 million —?148 —?0 —?14.3 million
1997 —?25.4 million —?9.2 million —?127 —?22 —?11.2 million
1996 —?32.2 million —?8.7 million —?131 —?278 —?11.5 million
1995 —?21.2 million —?6.7 million —?138 —?0 —?10.6 million
1994 —?31.5 million —?13.2 million —?196 —?31 —?15.7 million
1993 —?22.2 million —?0.7 million —?183 —?223 —?14.0 million
1992 —?13.5 million —?1.8 million —?186 —?34 —?10.6 million
1991 —?16.6 million —?7.9 million —?122 —?66 —?7.6 million
1990 —?8.9 million —?0.4 million —?118 —?2 —?6.8 million

Source: Metroplan, City of Benton

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