Using almost every measurement one can think of — outdoor amenities, arts and culture, creative dining, thriving business climate — there are few places in the Natural State — or the country, for that matter — that rival Bentonville. From its founding as a simple farming community through the launch of the world’s biggest retailer, Walmart, and on through to today, the city’s history is one of the more intriguing success stories Arkansas has to offer.

 

More than that, it is a story that continues to unfold as a steady influx of new residents seek their piece of this prime slice of the thriving northwest Arkansas corridor. The new faces bring their own culture and energy to the community, redefining what is possible.

Attractions abound in Bentonville, but less visible work helps sustain the influx of businesses and residents.

“I think we can say that we’ve done a fairly good job of that collaboration piece, and we’ve been very intentional about that,” Mayor Stephanie Orman said. “Not just city government, but bringing together all the partners in the puzzle to create that type of environment where we have a vibrant economy and also the arts and culture and outdoor recreation. It is a unique combination you don’t see in every other city.

Stephanie Orman

“What I like to say is, it’s kind of a tribute to the can-do attitude that you see here in Bentonville, the willingness to sit around a table and figure out how to combine resources and make it happen.”

Virtually no conversation about Bentonville can be had without discussing the city’s explosive population growth. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Bentonville’s population has grown nearly sixfold between 1980 and 2020, more than two and a half times between 1990 and 2020 and just under 180 percent since 2000.

 

The momentum has shown no sign of slowing down, either; in May 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau released population estimates that show Bentonville grew its headcount by just under five percent to 56,734 between 2020 and 2021. That was more than double the growth of second place Conway and ranked Bentonville as the 28th fastest-growing community in the nation.

 

While many Arkansas towns and cities would likely welcome even a fraction of that kind of influx, the fact remains that such growth does not come without challenges, albeit of the good-problems-to-have variety. Orman said in addition to city agencies, collaboration with the other three primary communities of the region — Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale — helps Bentonville navigate questions of future resources and capacity.

“We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive as much as you can be based on what we’ve seen in the past 10 years of growth,” Orman said. “We do have a unique collaboration in northwest Arkansas, allowing us to have discussions on a regional level for infrastructure and trying to combine resources on that. We’ve had water discussions with Beaver Water District, which supplies water to the four main cities, to make sure that capacity is going to be there.

 

“When you grow population, you’ve got to grow infrastructure with that, and we’re doing the work here to find the funding and understand how we get the projects in the ground. If we want to maintain the quality of life and why people want to come here now, then we have to address infrastructure.”

 

Thus far, the city has done a good job of managing such issues. When visiting the community, one sees surprisingly little congestion or the usual wear and tear that generally results from such heavy traffic. That not only benefits locals but helps feed into the city’s thriving tourism trade. However, Orman said, that success does not just happen, and with rampant development and a tight labor market, the process is not getting any easier or cheaper.

 

“I think we’re very blessed, but with growth, there are also a lot of challenges, and those challenges can be expensive,” she said. “We’re pretty good at putting together funding for projects, but to find the workforce to get the projects in the ground is a big challenge in northwest Arkansas.

“Right now, we might bid a project, and we only get one bid, if any. It’s really hard to get projects done when you don’t have the construction bidders out there to bid on the projects [and] the workers to get it done. That’s one thing that really is a struggle for us in this area, and we’ll probably continue to see that.”

 

Kalene Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, said that for all the things Bentonville has to offer in dining and recreation, less exciting elements, such as well-maintained streets and adequate sewer systems, are just as foundational to the city’s reputation as a vacation getaway and especially for people looking to relocate.

Kalene Griffith

“I would say we’re an entrepreneurial area, but we’re also this area of opportunity, and I think people see it when they come to our community,” she said. “We’ve positioned ourselves as a destination that has these quality-of-life-type of experiences in the arts and in the cycling industry, but the other thing is, we’re attracting people that want to learn more about us and want to experience us permanently.

 

“People are looking at Bentonville and feel that there are opportunities not just to visit, but to live, work and play here. It is essential for them to have these types of positive experiences when they’re looking for locations or destinations.”

 

Griffith arrived in Bentonville 18 years ago and has had a front-row seat to the city’s explosive period of growth ever since. She said while many cities might have been overwhelmed by the tidal wave of new residents and visitors, she gives community leaders high marks for their management of the influx, from their efforts in residential development and business support to tourism.

 

She said the city’s cycling community is one great example of looking ahead of the curve and marshaling the resources to capitalize on that vision.

Public art and intentionally developed walking trails boost quality of life throughout Bentonville.

“The things that I’m most impressed with are city leadership and public-private partnerships,” she said. “Years ago, we did a lot of education on what cycling tourism can do for the community. We talked with our hotels, saying if we’re going to have trails, here’s the things you have to do to be a cycling-friendly business. Our retailers, restaurants, put out bike racks in front of their businesses, for example. Everybody adopted that cycling culture within our community, which has allowed us today to be the mountain bike capital of the world.”

 

Though it may be hard to see from the outside, Griffith said there is still much on the tourism side that Bentonville can continue to develop and maximize. She said that includes expanding existing attractions such as dining and museums, as well as thinking creatively on how to fill in missing amenities.

 

“I do think we are continuing to evolve as a destination,” she said. “We don’t have a convention center, so what we have done is we’ve created the ‘unconventional convention,’ where people meet downtown in different buildings. Guess what? That immerses our tourists into our downtown area, so they’re becoming part of our community. They’re not in a convention center all day; they’re stopping and getting a coffee in between their keynote speaker and their breakout session. We started that in 2016, and it is continuing to grow. People are loving it.”

One recent project that fits in with the drive to continually improve is the Quilt of Parks project, which seeks to connect six city parks and public spaces downtown. Approved in 2020, the project’s central feature is a new linear park called a Street Promenade, which will eliminate a vehicular thoroughfare in favor of pedestrian-only play areas, café seating and an open space for events.

 

“Quilt of Parks really began as an effort to improve some of our existing parks and plazas,” Orman said. “We wanted to add new green spaces and plazas and gardens and stitch them all together in a cohesive, pedestrian-friendly way. It will allow us to take a lot of our events, where we try to pack thousands of people into our downtown square, and allow those events to be a little more spread out, a little more walkable, a little easier for people to flow through.”

 

Such projects have also made Bentonville a prime location for business. The city will likely always be known primarily as the home of global retail behemoth Walmart — and happily so, Griffith said, noting the generosity of the company and of the Walton family behind it — but entrepreneurs and corporate entities alike are finding Bentonville a fertile place to establish and grow myriad companies.

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“From a business standpoint, there is tremendous opportunity to relocate or expand here in the local marketplace,” said Brandom Gengelbach, president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, who recently came to the position after a similar role in Fort Worth, Texas. “In fact, it’s a huge reason why I’m here is to allow the chamber to help facilitate that process and get engaged because of the volume of activity that’s taking place.”

 

Gengelbach said in addition to Walmart and the national brands that have created a local presence to stay close to the corporate giant, Bentonville also boasts a thriving community of small, independent businesses. He said his goal is for the chamber to become even more relevant by elevating all companies, regardless of size.

Brandom Gengelbach

“The chamber will be the voice of the business community,” he said. “A symptom of high-growth communities is sometimes small businesses that have been here and been part of the growth for a long period of time start to fall through the cracks.

 

“As a chamber, we want to ensure that small businesses are participating, they have a voice in things and that the authenticity of the community which has made it so relevant and popular continues. That’s a big piece of our brand and charm as the community, and we need to help ensure small business doesn’t get diluted with all the new folks coming in.”

 

Gengelbach said even though he has only been in Bentonville a short time, he is impressed with the cohesiveness of the business community and its willingness to work together to improve the marketplace for all.

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“The biggest key for me has been getting out there and really listening to what the needs and challenges are,” he said. “We’ll be doing 13 focus groups with our membership this year because I want to make sure that the return on investment that we provide for our members, both those large businesses and small businesses, is the return on investment that’s relevant in 2024.

 

“It’s easy for organizations to get in a rut and continue to do similar things year after year, but for us to be successful in such an ever-evolving community as Bentonville, we have to take some stock of our value and our role in the community on an annual basis. I anticipate doing these focus groups every year, as the needs of 2024 may be different than 2025.”

 

When it comes to businesses looking to relocate, Gengelbach said the welcome mat is out.

 

“I would say if you’re looking for a dynamic, authentic community that has a small-town feel, Bentonville is a place to consider,” he said. “My wife says Fort Worth was a big city that felt like a small town and Bentonville is a small town that feels like a big city. For those individuals who don’t want to give up the benefits and the amenities of a large city but really enjoy small-town lifestyle and small-town charm, Bentonville is the place to go.”

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