It was a Monday night, and there wasn't a parking spot to be found on the square in downtown Bentonville. Things are quiet after dark in most Arkansas downtowns, especially on a Monday. But Bentonville is no longer your average Arkansas downtown.
Outside tables at restaurants such as Table Mesa, Tavola Trattoria and Tusk & Trotter were filled with diners enjoying temperatures that had cooled considerably following afternoon thunderstorms. People sat on benches around the square while watching children play. Tourists streamed in and out of the Wal-Mart Museum and the adjacent Spark Café.
I was in town to speak about the food culture of the Arkansas Delta as part of a series of dinners sponsored by Tusk & Trotter and the special collections department at the University of Arkansas. The menu cooked up by chef Rob Nelson (no relation) included crawfish, red potatoes, sausage mixed with corn and mushrooms, rice pilaf, fried catfish and a dessert tamale filled with peaches rather than meat.
As I spoke to the highly engaged audience, it dawned on me that downtown Bentonville is becoming the cultural heartbeat of this state. The November 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has spawned boutiques, top-notch restaurants and one of the nation's top-rated hotels, the 21c.
One example of the kind of business that now calls downtown Bentonville home is Ramo d'Olivo, an olive oil, vinegar and wine retailer and bar. The selection of oil, vinegar and wine rivals that of stores found in the nation's largest cities. Next door is the new restaurant Oven & Tap; the menu, which relies heavily on locally sourced food, combines the cooking of southern Italy and the southern United States. Oven & Tap is the first project of the Township Provisions restaurant group.
Near the square is Blu Fresh Fish Marketplace. Barry Furuseth, who moved to Northwest Arkansas from the West Coast eight years ago, worked for 23 years in the seafood industry as a wholesaler. There's fresh seafood flown in from Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, Florida, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. That's not to mention a 350-gallon tank filled with Arkansas catfish along with stainless steel-lined cedar boxes filled with crawfish. There's a cafe featuring seafood that has a limited menu for now. Eventually the Blu restaurant will cover 4,000 square feet and include an oyster bar.
Also near the square is a 111-year-old former church that's being converted into a restaurant known as The Belfry. It's a project of the Rope Swing Group, which already operates downtown's Pressroom, a combination coffee shop-bar-cafe. A rooftop bar in the former church will be known as the Water Tower. The basement will house an establishment known as the 607 Club. Matt Cooper has moved from Cache restaurant in Little Rock's River Market District to serve as the chef at The Belfry. Members of the Walton family are among the investors in the Rope Swing Group. A garden on the former church property will provide herbs and vegetables for the restaurant.
There's also a craft beer boom occurring. A former lumberyard in Bentonville is now the Bike Rack Brewing Co., a nod to the popularity among bikers of the recently completed Razorback Regional Greenway trail system.
Last year, Bentonville officials released a master plan to spur development in nearby neighborhoods. What's known as the Market District is several blocks southeast of the square. A former icehouse, a former Tyson Foods plant and a former Kraft Foods plant are set for redevelopment. A group known as Icebreakers LLC purchased the icehouse, built in the early 1900s and covering 15,563 square feet in November 2013. The building, which will contain office and retail space, backs up to the Razorback Regional Greenway. Paul Esterer of Newmark Grubb Arkansas says he will soon reveal plans for the former Tyson and Kraft plants.
When the National Town Builders Association held its spring meeting in Arkansas, one of the first stops was Bentonville. City planners and developers from across the country had dinner at Tusk & Trotter, followed by a late-evening event at 21c. The next morning was spent touring the trails system and Crystal Bridges.
In a feature story earlier this month for the New York Times, Bret Schulte wrote: "Cranes are cutting up the skylines, and real estate prices are headed in the same direction. ... In Bentonville alone, the population jumped 14 percent to more than 40,000 between 2010 and 2013. The rest of the state straggled along at 1.5 percent. Tourists are rushing in, too. About 1.6 million have visited the lavishly Walton-financed and mostly free Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art since it opened in 2011. Last year, visitors came from 30 countries."
Trevor Drinkwater, a former Warner Brothers vendor to Wal-Mart, joined forces with actress Geena Davis to put on this month's Bentonville Film Festival. He told the newspaper: "It's a perfect location, a great American town. I've been coming here for over 20 years, and the changes over that time are nothing short of spectacular."
Just off the square, work is coming along on Walton Enterprises' Midtown Center, which will have more than 50,000 square feet of space for offices and retailers. A short walk around downtown is enough to convince any visitor that the Bentonville boom is just getting started.
Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges and Universities. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 05/27/2015