BENTONVILLE -- Grants totaling more than $15 million are reshaping Northwest Arkansas Community College's culinary program and fueling Bentonville's growing foodie culture.
The school plans to move its Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program from a 14,800-square-foot space at the Center for Nonprofits in Rogers to 27,500 square feet in the former Tyson Foods plant at 801 S.E. Eighth St. in Bentonville. The goal is to open in the new location for the fall 2016 semester.
The Walton Family Foundation donated $15.1 million to support the region’s culinary environment.
• A two-year grant of $8.4 million to the Community Development Corp. of Bentonville/Bella Vista to redevelop a portion of the former Tyson Foods plant to house Northwest Arkansas Community College’s culinary program
• A three-year grant of $2.1 million to the college foundation to support the growth of the school’s culinary operations and curriculum development.
• A one-year grant of up to $4.6 million to the foundation to help buy and install furniture, fixtures and equipment at the new site.
Source: Northwest Arkansas Community College
The Walton Family Foundation is financing the move through three grants: two grants worth $6.7 million to the college to develop and outfit the program and one worth $8.4 million to the Community Development Corp. of Bentonville/Bella Vista that will redevelop the former factory.
"We want to start focusing on the larger food world, jobs outside the kitchen," said Glenn Mack, executive director of culinary arts at the college. "We'll help people break into the industry beyond the restaurant scene."
Mack became the school's first culinary arts director June 1 and will oversee the program and its expansion. He said the program will continue to train the next generation of chefs but also will focus on the larger food system such as where food is grown, artisanal food and butchery. A wines and spirits program also is under consideration, he said. Artisan food and products are made in traditional or non-mechanized ways.
The culinary program has about 125 students and the school anticipates enrollment to grow to about 300 over the next few years, said Meredith Brunen, executive director of development at Northwest Arkansas Community College.
"Being part of the synergistic atmosphere in downtown Bentonville is going to put us in the forefront of the growth," she said.
Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director for the Walton Family Foundation, said expansion of the school's culinary program will fill a gap in the local hospitality industry.
"Our downtown restaurants are cultivating specialized dining experiences that need access to a skilled workforce," she said in an email. "These new ventures by local food entrepreneurs will also be invaluable in the development of our downtowns, contributing to our region's sense of place."
The former Tyson building is in Bentonville's Market District, one of two areas outlined in the Southeast Downtown Area Plan the City Council adopted in January 2014. The Market District's focus is on food and culinary experiences. The other area is the Arts District and includes places such as galleries and studios.
Troy Galloway, Bentonville's community and economic development director, called the plans for the former Tyson building a catalyst for development. The building has been empty since Tyson moved out in 2005.
"It shows folks have confidence in the plan and in the community," he said. "It can serve as a cornerstone."
Most of the activity in the Market District has been on the residential side, with some smaller businesses popping up here and there, Galloway said. A brewery and fresh fish market recently opened just on the outskirts of the district.
The culinary school will fill about a third of the building's 81,036 square feet. The property is owned by Food Hub NWA, a company affiliated with the Walton family. A spokeswoman for the family said she had no additional details to share on Food Hub. The school's lease will be through the nonprofit entity Community Development Corp. of Bentonville/Bella Vista.
Final lease details haven't been worked out. Northwest Arkansas Community College pays $161,923 annually for the Rogers space, Brunen said.
The property was rezoned in April from heavy industrial to general commercial. Planning documents list several potential building uses including an artisan shop, bakery, bar, restaurant and retail sales. Galloway said the project will not need Planning Commission approval since the building is not being expanded, just renovated.
"There is clearly a new trend in food, food presentation and entertainment where you bring together a lot of different resources into a collective gathering point," Mack said.
The culinary school's will not only increase the quality and quantity of restaurants but help fuel the entire economy, he said.
Kathy Deck, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, said employment growth in the leisure and hospitality industries has been consistent throughout the economic recovery, but the trend isn't unique to Northwest Arkansas.
"Hospitality is growing more quickly than department store sales and it reflects our changing tastes," she said. "We spend more of our money on experiences than on stuff."
Additional food workers are needed as Northwest Arkansas tries to market itself as a foodie destination because restaurants are competing for the same trained staff, she said.
The leisure and hospitality industries employ 23,100 workers in Northwest Arkansas, an increase of 400 jobs in the past year and 7,100 workers over the past decade, Deck said.
Luke Wetzel, a chef and co-owner of Oven & Tap in downtown Bentonville, said the college appears to be paying attention to the future of culinary curriculum. He went to culinary school in San Francisco and said there were numerous farms and creameries, but that school didn't offer students options for visiting those places.
"I thought that was a huge void to get people into the scene," he said. "It's important to expose people to more than just the text book."
Wetzel said it's unusual to see so much support and resources contributing to a growing culinary scene.
"People see the direct benefit of having a great food scene. It attracts diverse people," he said.
Christie Swanson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAChristie.
NW News on 08/12/2015