Bentonville Stresses Its Small-Town Feel

Bentonville Stresses Its Small-Town Feel
Thrive, a mixed-use apartment complex, will be just a few blocks from Bentonville’s downtown square. (Artist’s rendering)

As cities in northwest Arkansas continue to grow, Bentonville leaders are looking inward.

On April 4, ERC Cos. of Barling will break ground on a new mixed-use apartment complex, Thrive, at the intersection of Southwest A and Southwest Fourth streets. The site, currently an empty lot, is just a few blocks from both Bentonville’s downtown square and the city library.

The complex will be built by ERC Construction, the in-house construction arm of ERC Cos.

The apartment building fits nicely into Bentonville’s overall plan to refocus new developments in the city’s downtown, which covers about 1,700 acres. Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin, the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce and ERC executives worked together to find the right spot for the 62-unit complex, which will also have retail spaces and a parking garage.

Tom Ginn, the chamber’s vice president of economic development, rattled off a series of developments that Bentonville has planned — or has seen put into action — for its downtown area. The Thrive apartments are set to open by the end of this year in what the city calls its Arts District.

McCaslin said people expressed interest in residential and business developments downtown after the square was renovated in 2008. The city decided to try to organize new developments as part of an overarching plan.

The city, McCaslin stressed, doesn’t dictate what goes where — other than through zoning laws — but does try to work with prospective investors to maximize the success of any venture. It makes sense for art-related businesses or for a housing developer to locate near a city-designated Arts District, too.

“Thrive is a classic example,” McCaslin said. “They have a desire to be a part of this. [People] think it is really cool to live close to downtown and experience that amenity year-round.”

The city is trying to help in more concrete ways as well, spending money to improve its infrastructure by widening and improving streets, modernizing sewer and water systems and upgrading landscaping.

“After 2008, investors wanted to be in or near downtown,” McCaslin said. “I think the trend is still going. It’s a wholesome family atmosphere you feel when you visit downtown Bentonville. People tell me it feels like Norman Rockwell.

“The aesthetics are what makes Bentonville. We’re trying to make Bentonville a point of difference.”

McCaslin said he doesn’t think there is one cause for Bentonville’s downtown revival. It would be silly to ignore the opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011, the improving local economy and the economic engine of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“We don’t need to deny that we have a world-class employer on Eighth Street for a small town in what is essentially a rural state,” said McCaslin, referring to Wal-Mart. “We have a very unusual demographic here.”

What Bentonville soon discovered is many of these newcomers to the area wanted a slower pace of life. “Downtown really created the buzz,” said Ginn. “Town squares are hard to beat.”

While Ginn said a lot of companies want to be on the square, space was limited. ERC was only too happy to fill one of those spaces just a few blocks away.

“First, the energy of Downtown Bentonville is hard to replace anywhere in the country, certainly for a town its size,” Rob Coleman, the owner and COO of ERC, said in an email to Arkansas Business. And second, he added, there is “the quality of life that it offers not only those who live there but people like me that bring my young family to enjoy the farmers markets, splash parks and arts.”

Thrive is marketed for more upscale residents with units ranging from 520-SF one-bedrooms to 1,000-SF two-bedrooms with rent from $800 to $1,200 monthly. Officials said there will be a ground-floor terrace that will be open to musicians and artists.

“We’re trying to create a unique environment so it’s not just some place they go home to,” said ReGina Rotert, ERC’s “experience curator.” “We want to provide them with some quality of lifestyle. Bentonville is rich in culture with lots of things to see and eat and do.”

Coleman said Bentonville’s downtown area matches up with what his company wanted to do with Thrive.

“Our true goal is to establish Thrive as an urban lifestyle brand that is fanatical about the experience of our clients/residents,” Coleman said. “Where this becomes easier than a typical suburban deal is where we have a place like Bentonville that has built-in theater and vibrancy. Most of our developments in the past didn’t have the connectivity that Thrive Bentonville will have nor the opportunity to be a part of the theater that is downtown.”

“Connectivity” is a word Ginn uses in conversation about Bentonville’s developmental plans. Not only does Bentonville want businesses within the Arts District to connect well with each other, leaders want the Arts District to connect well with the other areas of downtown.

One of the attractions for prospective residents of Thrive is so many things are within walking distance. Ginn and McCaslin said many younger professionals want to be able to walk (or bike) from where they live to restaurants, shops or parks.

“A lot of commercial folks are coming in and rebuilding homes, building homes,” Ginn said. “It creates opportunities for people to live here. Downtown has created awareness of additional opportunities for commercial developments.”

It’s not an overnight process. Ginn said many of the projects currently being put in motion, or about to be, have been planned for months or years.

The improving economy has sparked some action, and leaders hope the success of one project creates some developmental momentum.

One major player in Bentonville’s revitalization downtown was the opening of Crystal Bridges. McCaslin said the museum was not only a game changer for Bentonville but for the whole region because of the influx of visitors, with more than 650,000 the first year and 1 million in the first 21 months.

Ginn said many businesses tried to take advantage of the museum’s opening by moving into downtown only to get stuck when Crystal Bridges’ opening was delayed. Several businesses failed in part because of that, Ginn said. Bentonville leaders want to make sure future businesses have better success.

Whatever decisions are made, whatever boutique or restaurant opens, McCaslin said the city stands ready to help. “Maybe one area is better suited for retail and another area is better suited for arts,” McCaslin said. “We’re just encouraging and supporting things.

“So many pieces have come together. I like what is happening downtown. I think Bentonville’s future will be better than any of its pasts.”