Once upon a time, not too terribly long ago, Bentonville’s town square was anchored by a family five-and-dime store.
That little five-and-dime drank a magic elixir of business savvy and old-school work ethic and grew into a giant. And its hometown grew, too.
Bentonville certainly has grown with Wal-Mart, and benefited from the association. The companies that do business with Wal-Mart are putting down roots in Bentonville, and the city is welcoming them with open arms and accommodating growth with forward thinking.
Part of the dynamic growth the city has experienced over the past decade revolves around downtown revitalization. Many new businesses have opened around the downtown square. Bentonville’s emphasis on keeping downtown vibrant as the city grows has earned it recognition as a 2011 Arkansas Business City of Distinction in the category of Main Street Preservation.
Shelli Kerr, the city’s planning service manager, said downtown revitalization is the result of a comprehensive approach, including major private investments, public infrastructure improvements and the expansion of community events.
If it’s possible to become internationally renowned before opening your doors, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has done it. The $300 million enterprise, made possible through the generosity of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, is scheduled to open in Bentonville on Nov. 11.
The museum is already drawing rave international reviews, including those in the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker magazine. It will include 217,000-SF of galleries, meeting and classroom space, a library, sculpture garden and a “gathering place” for up to 300 people.
Just like companies that do business with Wal-Mart have opened Bentonville offices, the Crystal Bridges orbit has attracted many satellites. Perhaps the biggest is the planned 21c Museum Hotel, which will open just off the downtown square in 2012. The $30 million Bentonville hotel, owned in part by Walton, will represent just the second 21c Museum Hotel. The original was founded in Louisville, Ky., in 2006, and two more hotels are planned for Cincinnati and Austin.
The 21c brand specializes in contemporary art designs for its hotels, and the Bentonville version — five stories, 130 rooms with 12,000-SF of exhibit and meeting space — will be modeled after the art on display at Crystal Bridges. By the way, 21c Louisville has twice been named U.S. hotel of the year.
The restored Wal-Mart Visitors Center reopened in May on the square in the Terry Block Building, a historic landmark. The center serves as a museum dedicated to the life of Wal-Mart and its founder, Sam Walton, and his legacy. It includes a working, vintage five-and-dime store — like the one that kicked off this fairy tale — and a sidewalk café.
Kerr said the city “aggressively prepared” for the new museum and the anticipated opened floodgates of visitors, new businesses and residential growth.
Over the past two years, the city invested more than $4 million in downtown streetscape enhancements, parking lots, landscaping, renovations, new construction projects and new parks. Most of these projects are part of the Downtown by Design Master Plan (available at BentonvilleAR.com).
Streetscape enhancements included $1 million worth of brick sidewalks, street lighting, landscaping and street overlay to Northeast Second Street, which forms the northwest boundary of the square. Similar enhancement – plus utility relocations – is under way on East Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare into downtown from Interstate 540, with more streetscape enhancements planned downtown.
In addition, the city built two new parking lots ($650,000), one each on the northwest and southeast sides of the square. The lots provide a total of 209 parking spaces. The Bentonville Parks & Recreation Department and the Bentonville Garden Club teamed to improve landscaping around the square, including planting trees and tulips around the fountain.
Other notable projects include the renovation of City Hall, inside and out, at a cost of $191,000; the $1.55 million construction of Lawrence Plaza, a project of the Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau and the city parks department; the ongoing construction of the Downtown Activity Center and parks department building ($1.3 million), and the renovation of an 1841 school house, which now serves as home to the Benton County Historical Society.
Bentonville is adding sophistication but not letting go of its small-town charm. Its downtown square has been compared to a movie setting depicting an idyllic American lifestyle. Kerr appreciates the merging dynamics.
“A town of 35,000 will have one of the nation’s most incredible art museums, a corporate museum of the world’s largest retailer and one of the world’s most unique hotel experiences,” she said. “Wrap this into a dynamic and vibrant downtown filled with entrepreneurs, small businesses, great restaurants, retail stores, exciting public events and growing private investment, and we have achieved our vision of becoming the ‘community center of choice.’”