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Walton Family interest in Northwest Arkansas downtowns is getting smaller.

Well, perhaps that's not the best description of what Tom and Steuart Walton announced today in a letter sent to the Walton Family Foundation's local stakeholders. The brothers, grandsons of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, are launching what they're calling the Innovation Competition, a grant program focused on "healthy living and inspiring downtowns."

Much of the foundation's Northwest Arkansas work in recent years has been on regional quality-of-life projects. We've previously seen the foundation put millions into helping develop the 36-mile Razorback Regional Greenway trail system, or initiatives such as planting 1,000 tress in area communities to add to the natural beauty in Northwest Arkansas.

Here, through the Innovation Competition, the focus is hyper-local. Any individual or nonprofit organization can apply, but only projects impacting Benton County communities are being considered.

Walton Family Foundation initiatives broadly focus on three key areas: education reform across the country, water conservation and quality-of-life initiatives in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta (the Home Region). Board members (members of the Walton family) set the strategic vision of the foundation and generally put their support behind projects that are of personal interest.

For Tom and Steuart Walton that has meant a particular focus on downtown development and trails. They have shown their interest through both the Walton Family Foundation and personal endeavors like RopeSwing, the hospitality company for which Tom Walton, 32, serves as managing principal. Steuart Walton, 34, sits on the board of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and was part of the effort that helped Bentonville be named host city for the 2016 International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit.

Together they invested more than $300,000 in efforts to legalize alcohol sales in Benton County. The vote to go wet in 2012 has had a profound impact on the local dining and entertainment scene in this region of 500,000-plus people. Bentonville has been the subject of national attention as an arts and dining hub, in part, because of the brothers' efforts.

The Innovation Competition fund, part of the Tom and Steuart Walton Community Fund, but separate from the more broadly focused Home Region grants, will be much more centered on specific communities. Through grants that are somewhat modest by Walton Family Foundation standards -- the largest available is $25,000 -- the sons of Jim and Lynne Walton are looking to fund "local partners to imagine and nurture ideas that improve downtowns and promote healthy living in Benton County."

Bentonville-centered initiatives will qualify, although its downtown development efforts are clearly much further along than the ones in the county's other larger towns such as Rogers or Siloam Springs.

"Our cities have worked hard to develop ambitious plans for downtown neighborhoods," the letter reads. "Through this program, we want to motivate communities to join the effort by fostering thriving places to live, work and play. As we continue to grow a strong network of trails and improve access to locally grown food, this program should inspire healthy behaviors in our day-to-day lives."

Thinking that a fund with $50,000 in available grants isn't so big when considered in the context of the Walton Family Foundation, or coming from a family with a net worth of more than $100 billion? Sure. But if you are a new or struggling community organization, there's a good chance your budget isn't quite $100 billion and a few thousand dollars could be -- and I don't use this lightly -- life-changing.

It also offers additional evidence that this third generation of Waltons is actively pursuing ways to improve the area in which they were born and raised.

Under consideration for the component related to revitalizing downtowns include projects centered on public art, landscaping improvements and other enhancements to public spaces. Among the areas that would be considered under the healthy-living initiative are community gardening projects, efforts to improve access to locally grown produce, walking/running programs and other attempts at encouraging locals to use public recreation opportunities more often.

Grantees -- evaluated on innovation, number of people impacted, long-term sustainability, need and creative partnerships -- will be announced in late March.

"Strengthening the Cultural Infrastructure of Northwest Arkansas," a study released by the Walton Family Foundation in October 2015, revealed gaps in the local art scene, particularly small arts organizations and cultural activities for families who are not considered middle or upper class. All types of programs will be considered in this round of grants, but a passage in the arts-focused study hints at the motivation behind the Innovation Competition:

"There is a fear, that in the midst of the rapid development of NWA, the region may lose the rich cultural heritage that gives it its unique character and charm."

If you have a tip, call Chris Bahn at (479) 365-2972 or email him at

cbahn@nwaonline.com

SundayMonday Business on 01/17/2016

Print Headline: Walton initiative looks to inspire, improve Benton County downtowns

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