Friday, December 02, 2005

Downtown Bentonville is distressed?

When doing a search for "downtown Bentonville" yesterday, I came upon this recent post on one of the blogs that I frequent from time to time. This post was from earlier in November, starting with comments about the possibility of a new urban Wal-Mart taking shape in Pass Christian, MS. He used that as a springboard to talk about the idea of fitting big-box retail into the main street setting, moving on to the conditions in downtown Bentonville. I can't tell exactly which are his words, but he quotes a story from the Balitmore Sun from 2002 to back up his uninformed opinion that downtown Bentonville is distressed.

A lot can change in three years. More is at play in downtown Bentonville than merely the impact of Wal-Mart on the area. Wal-Mart certainly didn't create the strip-style suburban development, and sprawl will always generally succeed in the short term because it's not nearly as complicated an organism as a community trying to balance housing, retail, offices, and a sense of place in a downtown environment. Downtown development requires thought and careful planning, as well as a team of city leaders, private entrepreneurs, planning commissioners, and citizens willing to make an investment to see it through.

Not only do I feel it's irreponsible to try and make a statement about the current state of downtown Bentonville armed only with an article from 2002, I get tired of people lobbing critiques at downtown Bentonville and its relationship with Wal-Mart who've never been here.

Here's an excerpt from his post (which is mostly just the Baltimore Sun article), followed by my comments on his blog at the bottom. Be sure to read his whole post if you want the remainder of the context and the information about the WM Pass Christian store.

Despite the success of sprawl around Bentonville, Arkansas and the arrival of luxury shops catering to Wal Mart executives and the supplier companies located in the area, downtown Bentonville is distressed, at least according to this report in the Baltimore Sun "Under the giant's shadow; Bentonville: Another side of Sam Walton's huge success is revealed in the Arkansas town where he first got the idea that revolutionized retailing" from April 16th, 2002. From the article:

But a look at Bentonville today displays another side of Walton's huge success. Today, the downtown five-and-dime that gave Walton his start is a museum piece, carefully preserved as the Wal-Mart Visitors Center. As in small towns across the nation, the kinds of businesses that give a downtown life have moved out - joining the Wal-Mart on the edge of town. Half a century ago, no one thought that possible - either that big discount stores could thrive in the countryside or that little downtowns would wither.

From the looks of Bentonville, still a town of less than 50,000 people, exactly the opposite is true today. An immense Wal-Mart Supercenter thrives on Sam Walton Boulevard, the commercial strip on the edge of town, along with dozens of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and strip malls as far as the eye can see. But to those who have tried to do business in downtown Bentonville in recent years, the idea of succeeding in the age of Wal-Mart with a store like Walton's five-and-dime is a sick joke.

"Sam Walton? Nope, he'd never make it," says Ken Wenzinger, whose videostore/second-hand clothing shop on Main Street closed after a year. "There's just not enough traffic to get business going downtown." Wal-Mart is widely vilified for destroying downtown business districts from one end of the nation to the other. Whether Wal-Mart is truly to blame, orother forces joined in, Bentonville's business district hasn't escaped the fate.

On the square, an office supply company is still in business, as are a touristy knick knack store and a cafe next to Walton's old five-and-dime. But that's about it. Bentonville Furniture Inc., which once boasted "four floors of fine furniture," has been gutted. The shoe repair shop is gone, as is the doughnut shop. The dry cleaner closed. Western Auto closed. Even the post office has moved to Walton Boulevard...
Mr. Layman

As a resident of downtown Bentonville, here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

The migration out of downtown Bentonville certainly happened, and many businesses over the last 10 years have tried and failed to succeed downtown. I would have to say that downtown Bentonville has turned a corner in the last few years, however. Main Street Bentonville has been a huge proponent in helping to revitalize the downtown area. The mayor and the Chamber, with the help of Main Street, has begun the transition of downtown to a destination and asset, albeit not quite a 24 hour-type destination.

As I write, there are 3 new restaurants downtown working hard to open before the end of the year, and a coffee shop as well, joining the one (tired) cafe you mentioned. One is going to be a fairly nice restaurant where the owner purchased an abandoned church downtown for over $1 million, sinking probably $200k or more into it to renovate it into a restaurant.

The Bank of Bentonville (Arvest), rather than moving out of downtown, has renovated the front of their building on the square, sinking money into restoring the 5 separate historic facades that were lost during a boneheaded 60's modernist makeover.

We had our first two second-floor residential units built last year, and plans were announced for a half dozen more this week with the building of a new four-story infill project just 1/2 a block from the square. link to story here

We have a thriving grocery store in the middle of downtown, where my wife and I are able to walk with our NYC-style cart to do our shopping.

Every Friday night until 2006, Main Street shows movies on the square, and the adv. and prom. commission set up the annual free ice skating rink within spitting distance of the square. Thousands turned out for the square lighting, staying late until the evening enjoying carriage rides, christmas lights, live music, and food.

A ladies' bath and beauty supply store (Bath Junkie) tried a location in Rogers' glitzy, upscale Pinnacle area, eventually moving to downtown where they've thrived and seen their business more than double.

The downtown redevelopment TIF-financing district was passed by the City Council last week, paving the way for more city funds to the revitalization of the downtown corridor, which is much larger than the square.

Your assessment of Wal-Mart is right on the money, however. Everyone seems to get it, except for them. They donate money to Main Street, although I don't think they've the foggiest idea what it does. They own probably the most beautiful three-story building on the square, which is filled with conference rooms, tinted windows, a sealed-off front door, and absolutely nothing contributed to the life of the street.

And much fantastic ground-floor space downtown is wasted on the WM vendors that have migrated here like bees to honey. Not to mention the fact that downtown typically shuts down after 5 p.m on weekdays (except Fridays), which will hopefully change a little bit with the new restaurants.

In what will hopefully become a trend, the local PepsiCo VP built a "new" Victorian-style house right downtown with lots of old components, eschewing the typical choice of the rich transplant Vendors who love the tasteless blah that is the "upscale" country clubs in Rogers.

And I haven't even mentioned the new (hopefully) world-class Crystal Bridges Museum opening in 2009 that will be accessbile directly to downtown only by foot. (Car entrance will be on the other side from downtown, closer to the interstate)

Am I hopelessly optimistic about this place that I've grown to love in the last year and half? Definitely. But we moved downtown when we came to Bentonville deliberately so that we could be a part of, and even help bring about the downtown revival.

The prospects of downtown Bentonville are not nearly as bleak as the prognosticators make it seem (most of which offer their analysis from afar without a visit.)

I thank you for your insight, as well as the tidbit that Andres Duany and others may be in town in January. I think our Daily Record growth reporter might turn that into a story if she can nail anyone down about it.

In spite of Wal-Mart's complete ignorance, downtown Bentonville is poised to turn the corner, and experience the same revitalization as so many other downtowns these days. My wife and I make it our personal mission here to educate the populace about the value of "place" and the beauty of the smaller-town urban lifestyle.

Thanks for your work. BTW, I see your link to Atlanta Larry....he's one of my faves. I'm an Atlanta native and my brother still lives in the East Atlanta Village, just down the street from Larry....

Bill McNeill