Boomtown U. S. A.

In Arkansas, a new economy, and an unlikely Xanady

by: Jeff Glasser

June 25, 2001


B ENTONVILLE, an in BOOMTOWN, Arkansas.---------Sam Walton would not recognize the place now. The world famously unassuming Wal-Mart founder spurned foreign cars for his red Ford pick-up, and he expected employees to shun a “big showy lifestyle.”

BUT TODAY, June 2001, in Mr. Sam’s parking lot at Wal-Mart own head-quarters here, Mercedes Kompressor convertibles shine in the bright sunlight along side BMW’s M3s. Not so very far away, Wal-Mart’s .chief executive and senior vice-president live in great splendor at Pinnacle, the area’s first gated community and its most exclusive country club. Their neighbor, Red Hudson, a retired local multimillionaire meat-packer, has built a 17,784-square-foot mansion there, that’s complete with Italian marble and Minnesota stone–for a much-gossiped-about $10 million. Just across the Interstate 540 from Pinnacle, trucking titan J. B. Hunt is trying to erect his own Zanado, with a dizen deluxe office and condominium towers, a hospital, and, in the first for the region, a skyline. Everything’s a poppin’,” says the 74-year-old Hunt as he tools around the site in his tan GMC Sierra truck. “In the next 5 years, the weeds will be a city.”

Much of the country might dismiss Arkansas as an Al Capp caricature, native son Bill Clinton notwithstanding. Even locals joke that now the State motto should be changed to “Arkansas: Literacy ain’t everything.” But that old stereotype just no longer fits the state’s bustling northwest shoulder. This is a 21st-century real-life boomtown, a monument to the post-industrial service economy, and, surprisingly, the nation’s sixth-fastest-growing metropolitan area. There are new roads, new schools, new homes, and, by the tens of thousands, new residents. More than 310,000 people live here on 1,800 square miles of the Ozark Plateau. In Benton County alone, the population rose 57.3 percent in the past 10 years. Some worry that such explosive growth will run roughshod over the natural pleasures of lush forests, pristine lakes, and limestone bluffs and the go-slow quality of life that has been the region’s lure; others see rainbows in the nouveau-riche way of life.

“Privatopias.” There’s an almost numbing sameness to much of the new development, that Suburban States of America quality of strip malls (with trite names like Beau Terre) and subdivisions (like Pleasant Acres) galore. Residents are also getting their first taste of rush-hour traffic. “You can barely move,” grumbles Samantha Hamilton. The furious commercial construction along local highways is rapidly blurring the borders between towns. “It’s going to be like the metroplex in Fort Worth,” says Kathie Henson, a Benton County planning assistant. “It all just blends together. You don’t know when they stop and when they start.”

Historically, there has been little to suggest the region would be a magnet for much of anything. In the early 1900s, its bountiful apple orchards provided much of its economic base, until an unrelenting dry spell in the 1930s wiped out the business, and many Arkies fled . Today, the area has become a draw even for refugees from sunny California. Yet, as contractors pound out all of the wrinkles and reshape them into one homogenous, commercial whole, the Golden State emigrants might have trouble distinguishing their new home from any other suburban American enclave. “Privatopias” of subdivisions around cul-de-sacs sans sidewalks, look-alike homes, and three-car garages may appeal to some, but others consider them charmless clusters. “We’re making all the mistakes every other place makes as it develops,” says Bill Schwab, a University of Arkansas sociologist. He worries, too, about a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.

It wasn’t that way when would-be barons like Walton, Hunt, and Don Tyson got their start. Tyson’s “daddy” arrived in a battered truck 70 years ago and survived by hauling poultry to Chicago. By 1947, he had incorporated his chicken business. Two decades later, Hunt, a trucker with a seventh-grade education and a silky business touch, bought his first rigs and carried Ralston Purina’s local feed. And in 1950, an eccentric entrepreneur named Sam Walton opened a five-and-dime store on the main square in what his wife, Helen, called “a sad-looking country town” of fewer than 3,000 people. Two years later, Walton launched a second store in Fayetteville. Wizened locals gave him 60 days before Woolworth’s would run him out of business. So much for their soothsaying.

The rest of the story is now local legend. Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and J. B. Hunt Transport became a recession-proof triad of money and power, and tiny Bentonville grew in tandem, its population soaring by 557 percent in 40 years, to 19,730 people in 2000. Neighboring Rogers mush-roomed by 682 percent, from 4,962 in 1950 to 38,829 in 2000 . Scores of residents who bought in early to Walton’s concept be-came magnificently wealthy through their holdings of Wal-Mart stock. “I’m 43 years old, and I could retire if I wanted to,” says Loretta Hartgrade, a manager who built her dream home with stock proceeds from 25 years at Wal-Mart. The economic benefit is undeniable—but at what price? Wal-Mart’s hometown now seems as much theme park as real. Walton’s original Five and Dime is a museum. Along Walton Boulevard, a prefab silver Denny’s Diner competes with Ruby Tuesday, Dairy Queen, and the other familiar chains . The mother of all Wal-Mart Supercenters offers everything from groceries to tuneups. There’s a $1.9 million project in the works to transform the downtown into a quaint square with brick- lined walkways and retro lamps, a plan critics say is a tacky attempt to fabricate a small-town atmosphere. On the residential side, Mc-Mansions have risen in outer developments like Stonehenge that ring downtown Bentonville, encircling the shotgun ramblers built closer to town. The average house price has soared 73 percent in 25 years to $135,000, and $1 million homes are no longer a rarity. Bentonville attorney Gary Kennan says the area has changed from a friendly town without stop-lights into a divided small city that’s “very wealthy and very poor and little in between.”

Charity at home. That may be a bit harsh, considering the new churches, boys and girls clubs, and youth sports facilities subsidized by the areas richest denizens. Earlier this year, retired Wal-Mart millionaire Ferold Arend and his wife, Jane, donated another $5 million to the new $18.5 million Bentonville High School for an auditorium and arts center. “If people wanted to live based on their net worth, you’d see a whole lot more wealth than you’re seeing now,” says David Short president of the Walton-owned Bank of Bentonville. A flood of new wealth, though is likely in Bentonville. In the next five years, (It’s now 2001, remember) thousands of well-heeled Wal-Mart suppliers are expected to move into the region to service their main customer, perhaps doubling the population. The $107 million airport built in 1998 near Bentonville on 2,700 acres of cow pasture is also sure to spur development. Five airlines now offer direct jet service to nine cities, including New York and Chicago. Plus there are 66.7 miles of new Interstate 540, one of only seven “high priority” future federal highways.

Hunt salivates at the growth potential. Bored with retirement, he used some of his $252 million fortune to put up South 17 Fork, a 970-home development named after J. R. Ewing’s mythical spread on TV’s Dallas. His partner in that project was Gary Combs, Don Tyson’s son-in-law. Their latest grand plan is to transform Rogers, the stepsister among the four major towns, into the Cinderella city. Until recently, Rogers served primarily as a bedroom community for Wal-Mart, Tyson, and Hunt employees. Stench from broiler chicken houses on the fringes of downtown limits its appeal somewhat, but the new interstate along the rural western flank has suddenly made smelly Rogers more fetching I look at it as a clean sheet of paper that you can put a city on,” says Combs

On the blank slate, Combs and Hunt have drawn up the dozen towers looking down both sides of the freeway. Twin 20 story deluxe condominiums would stand perched on a hill. “There’s a fantastic view,” Hunt claims. (It’s of the highway.) There would also be a hospital, medical park, shopping center, and offices for Wal-Mart vendors. In July, construction is scheduled to start on a $35 million, 10-story Embassy Suites hotel. Overall, Hunt and Combs project $1 billion will be spent to bring 15,000 to 20,000 people to their “city” in five years. (Remember, that’s 2006)

If Hunt had his druthers, the new community would be called the Pinnacle. But locals like Jacqueline and Pat Patterson would probably call it the pits. The Patter-sons bought a house at the Manors last fall; they put in a pool and a wooden fence to keep out the cows grazing in surrounding pasture they thought was protected. Now Hunt’s “city” is creeping within one farm of their home. “I’m not going to be sitting in High Noon at my backyard,” Pat Patterson, a retired Wal-Mart vendor, said acidly at a City Council meeting. He told the developers, “You’ll buy my property, and you can do whatever the hell you want with it.”

Even old grammar school chums are feuding over the changes. Lynn England is especially peeved at former classmate Rickey Roller, who sold his 37-acre turkey farm to Hunt and Combs. “We do feel like he sold everyone down the river,” she says. Roller says his neighbors treat him with disdain. “They all griped when the turkey houses were all put up because it smells,” he says. “Then they’re griping because they’re tearing down the turkey houses and putting up something else.” Hunt, who used to ride horses on the land he’s developing, says he understands the bitter feelings. At one point, he’s so taken with the property that he stops his souped-up pickup to watch a beaver lumbering along a spring-fed creek. But he quickly buries his sentimentality. “To me, that’s past history,” he says. “There are other places to ride horses.”

Big box appeal. He’s not the only one who thinks so. Hunt says Rogers Mayor Steve Womack is so pro-growth that he “want[s] to hug his neck” every time he sees him. The mayor says he encourages commercial projects for the sales tax revenue. England sees another motive . “It’s going to create fame and glory for the mayor,” she says.

Womack’s image could use some polishing. In March, three Hispanic residents of Rogers filed a racial profiling lawsuit against the mayor, police chief, and the city. They claim cops pulled them over without probable cause and illegally asked for immigration papers. Womack would not comment on the lawsuit. But he admits there are racial tensions between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics, whose share of the population jumped from nearly zero to 20 percent in 10 years. The transformation has been so rapid that longtime natives chafe when they see signs in Spanish at Wal-Mart and Price Cutter. “It’s a hillbilly town that’s grown up too fast,” says Jeff Allen Harris, 20, a lifetime resident of Rogers who is of Mexican and American Indian descent.

A perception of increased social problems has contributed to the resentment. Violent crime, poverty, and teen pregnancy rates, though relatively low, are trending upward. A drive-by shooting occurred in Bentonville on June 1, something unheard of in Sam Walton’s day. One university survey found that only a third of residents were optimistic about the future. Hispanic immigration “creates anxieties and apprehensions on the part of people who’ve been here a long time,’ says William Mangold, director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Arkansas. “This was a lily-white community. The people liked the way it was.” Eddie Vega says the atmosphere has actually improved since he moved to neighboring Springdale in 1994. Back then, his sister, Virginia, had a Mexican grocery. Wal-Mart executives came in jackets and ties and jotted down the products they were selling . Soon, moles, chilies, and Mexican cheeses appeared on local Wal-Mart shelves. The store buckled under the competition, but Vega isn’t bitter. He started a Spanish-language newspaper and two radio stations that serve the area’s 26,400 Latinos. In an ending that would have made Sam Walton proud, the retail behemoth signed up as an advertiser..


                                                      U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT

                                                                                  June 25, 2001, (pgs. 17-20)

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