The Bentonville Boom: Wal-Mart Leads Region To Explosive Growth

About 1,000 people a month move to Benton County, Ark., to work with or for Wal-Mart, as the boom in Bentonville attests.

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Rich Davis, director of economic development for the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, put it another way: “We’re building gated communities in Bentonville not because crime is a problem, but because it’s chic everywhere else.”

Indeed, signs for high-end retail, residential and office complexes bristle from red clay construction sites and grassy fields all over the area. Several million square feet of new construction are either proposed or under way in the 20-mile chain of communities running north and south along I-540. Most projects are in Fayetteville (home to the University of Arkansas), Bentonville or Rogers (site of the first Wal-Mart and the area’s first gated community).

Plans call for several lifestyle malls, myriad housing developments with names like Allencroft and Stonehenge, 20-story office towers and a 250-room Marriott with an adjoining convention center. That hotel, Marriott’s first in Arkansas, will bookend the 250-room Embassy Suites, which opened in May and charges, in local terms, an astronomical $200 a night. Prior to the hotel opening, visitors had a choice of stale-smelling motels along Walton Boulevard, Bentonville’s main commercial artery.

Development — much of it Spanish-tiled, stucco or fieldstone — stands shiny-penny new against the region’s rolling fields, abandoned chicken coops and Dairy Queens.

An occasional homespun business survives along highways, like Stuff Mart, with the slogan: “We get real good stuff.” In a land where admiration and emulation blur, there’s also a Sam’s Furniture and a Car Mart (neither is connected to the Walton family or Wal-Mart.)

Raymond Burns, president and chief executive officer of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, estimates he’s fielded more than 100 retail inquiries in the last 12 months, during which time Barnes & Nobles, Linens ’N Things, Old Navy and Chico’s all opened their first units in the region.

Kohl’s and Target are also relatively recent entrants to northwest Arkansas, apparently willing to face the competitive nightmare of playing on the home turf of the world’s largest company in exchange for a slice of the burgeoning market.

Kohl’s has doors in Fayetteville and Rogers. Target, which opened less than a year ago in Fayetteville, announced it also wants to open in Rogers. Local scuttlebutt — and perhaps poetic irony — places Target across the street from Wal-Mart’s oft-expanded first store, in a space Kmart recently abandoned.
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