Like the sales data streaming to those satellite dishes, the world is being drawn to Wal-Mart’s hometown.
Flight attendants greeting passengers at the regional airport freshly carved out of farmland acknowledge this fact. “Whether you’re visiting Wal-Mart or returning home,” one announced recently, “welcome to northwest Arkansas.”
Executives from Fortune 500 companies are doing both — and the signs are all over, from endless construction sites to the status-symbol cars tooling the area’s roadways. The executives come to conduct business with Wal-Mart and then, with increasing frequency, end up opening branch offices and calling the region home.
Some 1,000 people move into Benton County each month, mostly to work for or with Wal-Mart, said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. Benton is the third-fastest-growing county in the nation, behind Orange County, Fla., and Clark County, Nev. The metropolitan statistical area — 1,800 square miles encompassing Benton and Washington Counties — has a 311,121-person head count, the second-highest job-growth rate in the U.S. and unemployment of less than 2 percent, according to the 2000 census and chamber of Commerce statistics.
Wal-Mart itself is a huge contributor, directly employing about 17,000 people in northwest Arkansas.
The gravitational pull is so strong that 25 percent of the workforce from nearby McDonald County, Mo., and Madison County, Ark., commutes to Benton or Washington Counties for jobs. The two counties are within an hour’s drive of Bentonville.
And when vendor executives relocate here, they mostly notice two things: Their paychecks go a lot further and they miss the amenities they left behind.
“There’s definitely an upper-middle-class demographic here that’s under-served in goods and services,” said John Schupp, senior vice president with developer Jones Lang LaSalle, which is active in $1 billion worth of regional construction. “It’s no slam to Wal-Mart, but the people moving in want to shop other places. They want Steve Madden shoes and Chico’s clothes.”