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Northwest Arkansas is on a roll. As cities across the country were scrambling to compete for Amazon's second corporate headquarters, Wal-Mart announced last month that it will build a new corporate campus at Bentonville. Some real estate experts in that corner of the state predict Wal-Mart will end up spending almost $1 billion on a project that could lead to at least another $500 million in construction elsewhere in Bentonville during the next decade.

Add to that the regular announcements coming out of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at Bentonville, which is further solidifying the region's growing reputation as a mecca for arts and culture. Plans also are being finalized for what will be known as the Momentary, an arts venue in a 63,000-square-foot former Kraft Foods cheese plant less than two miles south of Crystal Bridges. Site work is expected to start in late 2018, with the facility opening in early 2020. The visual and performing arts space will be designed by noted Chicago firm Wheeler Kearns Architects. The Momentary will be led by Lieven Bertels, who previously was the chief executive officer and cultural director of an arts festival in the Netherlands.

Bertels says the Momentary is "poised to be an international destination that demonstrates how contemporary American art and artists intersect with daily life around the globe. The Momentary will push the boundaries of creativity, blur urban and rural lines, and provide access to arts-based experiences in a comfortable and well-designed social space."

When the concept was announced in March 2016, Tom Walton, the son of Jim Walton and grandson of Sam Walton, said it would "be huge for the younger generation, the millennials." Tom Walton, whose interests along with his brother Steuart range from mountain biking to restaurants, said the Momentary would help Bentonville "become one of the hottest destinations in the country."

There are large parts of Northwest Arkansas that can feel like one continuous suburban sprawl filled with cookie-cutter subdivisions and apartment complexes, retail strip centers and chain restaurants. Several things are happening, however, to transform not just Bentonville but the entire region into the destination that Tom Walton envisions.

One key development has been the fact that the five main cities in the region--Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville and Siloam Springs--have put the focus back on their historic downtowns. The subdivisions and strip centers lack soul, but more entrepreneurs are taking advantage of older buildings downtown. This welcome emphasis provides the booming region with a sense of history, continuity and place.

Another major step forward was completion of the Razorback Regional Greenway to tie towns together. In 2000, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission began a long-range planning process that included trails as a component. In July 2009, the Walton Family Foundation announced that it would fund up to $15 million for trails subject to a match from participating cities.

The foundation also provided funding for a planning and design team. In November 2010, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission received a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the project. The Razorback Regional Greenway is now a 36-mile shared-use trail that extends from the Bella Vista Trail in north Bentonville to south Fayetteville. The project, used by thousands of walkers and bikers each week, cost about $38 million.

With the fanfare surrounding a new Wal-Mart corporate headquarters, development of the Momentary and the growing international reputation of Crystal Bridges, a smaller Walton Family Foundation program gets lost in the flood of positive news coming out of the region. But this program is also helping make Northwest Arkansas a place where talented young people want to live and work.

It's the foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, which promotes good design for public spaces in the region and adds to the sense of place that the sprawl areas lack. The program was inspired by a similar effort in Indiana funded by the Cummins Foundation. It began in 2015 and has developed a pool of more than 50 architecture and landscape architecture firms in 15 states, the District of Columbia, Denmark and Canada that want to do work in Northwest Arkansas.

Projects that have been supported through the program include a new 51,500-square-foot space for TheatreSquared in downtown Fayetteville, an adaptive reuse effort for Rogers Historical Museum, the 35,000-square-foot Helen Walton Children's Enrichment Center in downtown Bentonville, a downtown municipal campus for the city of Springdale, a five-acre downtown park for the city of Siloam Springs, and a 30-acre campus master plan for Thaden School, a new private school in Bentonville.

The foundation is focusing this year on landscape architecture. Grantees for work on parks and green spaces in Northwest Arkansas will be announced next month.

TheatreSquared staged its first production 11 years ago. Now more than 40,000 people annually attend performances at what the American Theatre Wing has recognized as one of the nation's best emerging theaters. The theater had used the Nadine Baum Studios at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, which was never designed to host a permanent theater company. As one of the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program's original three pilot projects, TheatreSquared had access to nationally known architects with all phases of design work funded. In downtown Rogers, the historical museum was able to set its sights on the Hailey Building, which was built in 1947 and served as a Ford dealership until 1969.

Economic development in the 21st century centers around quality of life issues. The leadership in Northwest Arkansas understands that, further propelling one of America's fastest-growing regions.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/15/2017

Print Headline: Creating a sense of place

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