Northwest Arkansas as we know it has been shaped — deliberately and accidentally, for the better and for the worse — by the presence of Wal-Mart.
From highways to airports, from homes to banks, from dining to the arts, the Wal-Mart presence is felt mightily in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Statistical Area anchored by the three cities plus Wal-Mart’s home in Bentonville.
Ed Clifford, the president and CEO of the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, worked 17 years at Wal-Mart before assuming his current post in 2001. He has seen not only the company’s growth and its impact on the region firsthand, but also how the region has evolved to accommodate that growth.
“When I came here in 1984 there were about 6,000 people,” Clifford said of the Wal-Mart workforce in Bentonville. “There were about 400 people in the office. We had stores in six states. So today we have about 29,000 Wal-Mart associates in the area.” In addition, he said, Wal-Mart has stores throughout the world, and “we have people living here from all over the world.”
Independent architect Collins Haynes was involved in much of the construction that created 4.5 million SF of new office space from 1990-2010.
“The housing market was one of the biggest areas that was impacted,” Haynes said.
“Also retail. There wasn’t any retail here. If you wanted to buy anything you went to the mall in Fayetteville or you went to Tulsa.”
Haynes said the building boom, which also included homes for relocating employees and executives, could be traced to Wal-Mart decisions to deal directly with companies supplying its goods and to expand into the grocery business.
Those decisions meant companies needed representatives in northwest Arkansas, and those representatives needed places to live, work and shop.
“I’d say out of 10 people, nine of them will be non-native,” Haynes said. “And they will be people who have moved here either because of Wal-Mart or because of the economy here or a job here or vendor relocation or whatever.”
The four primary industries in the northwest area include department and other general merchandise stores, accommodation and food services, health care and educational services. The northwest is also home to such other major employers as Tyson Foods Inc., J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the University of Arkansas, but the region’s largest industry is general merchandise, and that means Wal-Mart.
“I don’t even know how to explain to people,” Clifford said. “But without the four anchor industries that we have we would still be growing apples and maybe a few chickens, but not too many. All of it goes to mesh together.”
Northwest Arkansas’ growth has included the building of Interstate 540 — championed by former congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt in part to help move materials for Wal-Mart distribution centers — and the opening of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in 1995.
“The only airport at the time was Drake Field in Fayetteville,” Haynes said, noting the old airport was not popular with a certain former Arkansas football coach.
“Lou Holtz used to say, ‘You don’t buy tickets. You buy chances,’” Haynes said.
Without the growing community of retirees, Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers might not exist, Haynes said, nor would massive infrastructure improvements that include miles of fiberoptic cable for communications.
But the Wal-Mart impact is measured by more than just population and construction.
It is measured in the types of people who have come to work for the company and their effect on local demographics. And that has, in turn, impacted the way people in the area dine out or spend their leisure time and what services they use.
In pointing out Bentonville’s Asian population, the Hispanic influence in Rogers and Springdale or Fayetteville’s African-American community, Clifford noted not just the necessity of expanding services but tailoring them to a variety of needs and tastes.
“I see an awful lot of our established businesses here changing the way they look at their commerce,” Clifford said. “I think nobody here even turns their head when they see folks from all over the world. … That’s a part of who we are now.
“I think that when people come here from other countries they get a flavor, not a false sense of welcoming but a sense of this is an area that knows how it is, is comfortable with anybody being part of what they do.”
While goods and services may be tailored to specific elements of a diversifying market, it doesn’t mean native Arkansans haven’t also benefited from the newer, more cosmopolitan way of life.
For evidence, Clifford said, look no further than the critically praised Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November in Bentonville.
“Up until Nov. 11 it was a very business-oriented town,” Clifford said. “Of course, Crystal Bridges has changed that immensely.”
Crystal Bridges clearly would not exist without Wal-Mart and the wealth it generated for the Walton family. The art museum is the project of Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and stands as another example of the broadened horizons in northwest Arkansas.
Now, Clifford said, the area is drawing members of the art community in greater numbers and with them comes a still greater variety of tastes and influences with potential to affect the local scene.
But Clifford and Haynes point out that northwest Arkansas has not become so high society that it has lost its identity. Yes, there are now Mercedes and BMW dealerships, Haynes said, and executives have big houses, but there are few outright gaudy displays of wealth or success.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that you cannot even pretend to know by looking at a person — or by what they drive or how they dress — what their level of liquidity is. There are some people here who have unimaginable wealth but who are normal Joes.”
The work ethic that helped create Wal-Mart still exists in northwest Arkansas, Clifford said.
“Who we are has evolved since 1962 when Sam put the first Wal-Mart up,” Clifford said. “But I don’t know that the character of northwest Arkansas has changed a whole lot. It was all about entrepreneurship then, and it’s still about entrepreneurship. We’re seeing more and more small companies formed.
“Granted, they have a customer base here for their services you maybe wouldn’t have in other areas, but still it’s about entrepreneurship, schools. It’s about the safety of the area.”