On July 1, the city of Bentonville declared itself "Mountain Biking Capital of the World" and trademarked the title.
It should have come as no surprise.
"This incredible distinction has come after years of intentional work from Bentonville's city leaders, trail builders, maintenance teams, new and experienced riders, and countless others in our great community," Tom Walton, co-founder of RUNWAY Group, a lifelong Bentonville patron and avid mountain biking enthusiast, said in a news release. "From the outset of our shared vision to transform our city as a mountain biking paradise unique from other destinations, the city government and community leaders provided the support and balanced leadership we needed to help make the dream become a reality."
Writing for PinkBike.com, an online hub for mountain bikers, Daniel Sapp said this a couple of days later:
"There are a lot of incredible places to ride, and there is plenty of riding in the world that is more epic, scenic, challenging, what have you, than Bentonville. But as an all-encompassing destination, I've not visited anywhere more pleasant to ride, because there's more to bikes than simply terrain. The town is bike-friendly, there are phenomenal restaurants, entertainment, a bad*ss museum, incredible coffee, top-notch bars, and a smorgasbord of other businesses that I actually want to visit.
"Take me to a resort with really great riding, and I'm not really going to do anything else. Bentonville? I'm going to go explore the town too. ... There are weeks of riding right from town and then plenty more within a short drive. ... And it's all integrated into the town without the feel of a resort. It's Pleasantville for a mountain biker, and it's a region with people behind it that are willing to do whatever it takes to grow the sport."
But what 2020 also proved is that you don't have to be a mountain biker to take your entertainment outdoors -- particularly in the year of the covid-19 pandemic. For some people, that meant a stroll through a newly designated arboretum, an outdoor concert, movies at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, outdoor art or even live theater presented on the streets.
For others, it meant socializing outdoors in newly created entertainment districts.
Compton Gardens Becomes An Official Arboretum
"I can attest to the fact that the gardens have been bursting with even more visitors than ever since the pandemic's very first days," says Jeannie McIntire, a spokeswoman for the Peel Compton Foundation in Bentonville. The gardens surround the former home of Dr. Neil Compton -- a noted Bentonville physician, writer, photographer and founder of the Ozark Society who is credited with turning the Buffalo River into a national park -- and have been popular since their inception in the 1990s, long before this year's accreditation as a Level II arboretum. The ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program and The Morton Arboretum cited Compton Gardens for "achieving particular standards of professional practices deemed important for arboreta and botanic gardens." It is the only Level II arboretum in the state of Arkansas.
The driving force behind the process of gaining that status was Madeline Samec, the site manager for Compton Gardens.
"I took the tour of Compton Gardens, and the first thing that spoke to me was this was an arboretum," Samec says about coming into her new job four years ago. "It's a beautiful collection of trees and woody shrubs that Dr. Compton wanted to use to teach people. We already had five Champion trees on site. So this is just continuing his legacy.
"For me, [the designation] means paying more attention to the trees we have and seeking out the trees we don't," she says. "For our visitors, it's a wonderful place to walk and explore and learn -- and maybe see what you can do in your own little piece of paradise."
Coler Mountain Bike Preserve Attracts Everyone
Completed in 2020, Coler Mountain Bike Preserve also falls under the umbrella of the Peel Compton Foundation and boasts more than 17 miles of soft surface mountain biking trails that wind through a 300-acre preserve.
But again, one doesn't have to be a mountain biker to enjoy what Coler Mountain has to offer. In October, the preserve opened 22 campsites -- eight small tent platforms, eight large tent platforms, and five Class B camper van parking pads -- along with an Airship coffee house -- complete with beer garden and rooftop bar -- two renovated open-air barns for small group events, yoga platforms and a community fire pit that is stocked with wood at 4 o'clock every evening.
Kenny Williams is the program manager for the Peel Compton Foundation, charged with "activating" education programming. Looking out his window on a sunny Monday just before Christmas, he says Coler Mountain is "packed."
"The place was absolutely crawling with families all summer, I think because a lot of playgrounds were closed. The creek that runs through the middle was a haven for kids to come play," says Williams, who came to Peel Compton from running the outdoor adventure program at the University of Arkansas. "Luckily, Coler Mountain is 300 acres of nature's playground. I think we had a lot more people find Coler because of the pandemic than would have otherwise.
"It was built as a mountain bike preserve, and it attracts a lot of mountain bikers, but it's an unexpected bonus that just as many people come to enjoy the greenway, the cafe, the creek or just walk in the woods with their families."
Movies At The AMP; Music At The Drive-In
While the AMP in Rogers is ordinarily a music venue, this year, it became an outdoor movie theater, while outdoor movie theaters like the historic 112 Drive-In in Fayetteville and the Kenda Drive-In Theater in Marshall became concert venues (while also showing movies, of course).
The first Saturday Cinema was hosted Sept. 12 indoors at the Walton Arts Center with a showing of "Blinded by the Light" -- the story of a young British teen who finds the courage to be himself, set to the music of The Boss -- followed by a recording of the live London stage production of "Kinky Boots." On Sept. 19, the series moved north to the AMP where, on National Talk Like a Pirate Day, swashbucklers and scalawags could see "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" on the big screen once again.
"We're excited to be able to offer film during this time, and it's so much fun to be able to curate these," Jennifer Ross, director of programming at the WAC, said of Saturday Cinema. "They're not off-the-wall films, but they're films that people may not have heard of."
At the same time, musicians and music lovers were itching to get their live music fix -- but in a safe way. Awakening Events offered a solution a few other artists and tour producers also initiated: drive-in concerts. TobyMac, one of the biggest names in contemporary Christian music, set out last summer not just for a single drive-in concert, but for an entire tour.
"A few Saturday nights every summer my family and I head to a local drive-in movie theater. We always love it," TobyMac enthused. "When we started discussing live shows in this quarantine season and the idea of playing drive-ins came up ... I said, 'Let's gooooo!' It feels like summer, safe for everybody, and we all get to enjoy live music again. We 'bout to make some memories."
Walmart also announced in August the creation of temporary drive-in theaters in the parking lots of its retail stores through mid-October.
"We recognize the challenges our customers and their families have faced over the last few months, and we wanted to create an experience where they could come together safely to create new memories," said Janey Whiteside, Walmart's chief customer officer, of the free events. "The Walmart Drive-in is one small way we're supporting the communities we serve."
Ozark Folk Festival Takes The High Road
It was supposed to be a blow-out celebration of the 73rd year of the Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs. But with covid-19 concerns, planners had to get creative.
"The Folk Festival was not the same," admits Gina Rambo, interim director of the Eureka Springs City Advertising & Promotion Commission, "missing our headline show in the Aud, Queen's contest, Hedgehoppers (the third-graders learn a dance every year) and folk fair in the park."
What Eureka Springs was able to do was take music outdoors -- but not to Basin Park.
"The mayor's office is not allowing Basin Park permits through the end of the year -- and most likely first quarter 2021 -- so we weren't able to put music in the bandshell like we did every month, so that was greatly missing from downtown," Rambo says. Instead, starting in mid-August and running through the Folk Festival weekend in November, music went "overhead."
"We did put music on several balconies up above Spring Street and Main Street Thursday through Saturday to give our guests some of that great Eureka Springs atmosphere that they were missing," Rambo says. "People were able to enjoy the sounds while walking up and down the streets, but we were keeping things safe without drawing a crowd.
"We used all local musicians," she adds, "which also helped them since their usual gigs were not happening. We were glad we were able to do something, but we sure missed our traditional events."
Outdoor Refreshment Areas The Latest Trend
It started as a way for people in Fayetteville to enjoy drinks on the go downtown -- and then along came the pandemic. And the idea of an "Outdoor Refreshment Area" blew up.
The pilot program for the Outdoor Refreshment Area kicked off at 10 a.m. July 22, NWA Democrat-Gazette Fayetteville reporter Stacy Ryburn wrote on Aug. 25. "Since then, more than 65,000 green-striped, compostable cups have gone out the doors of nearly 50 downtown bars and restaurants, Economic Vitality Director Devin Howland said."
Ryburn explained that state law enacted in 2019 "allows cities to create entertainment districts where people can drink outside within a boundary." Fayetteville adopted its ordinance in June, while Springdale, Fort Smith, Eureka Springs and Rogers were also considering the question.
In Fayetteville, customers can buy drinks on the go from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. The boundary roughly covers Watson Street to the north, to East Avenue, to Mountain and Prairie streets to the south and West Avenue and Powerhouse Alley to the west.
"The ordinance allowing outdoor drinkingwas coupled with a measure enabling businesses to use public parking spaces or their private property as sit-down space," Ryburn explained. "Parklets began popping up along Dickson Street this summer, replacing otherwise empty parking spaces with stools and benches enclosed in short fencing. Businesses such as Big Box Karaoke and Maxine's on Block Avenue turned the vacant spaces near their doors into picnic-like spots for drinking."
In addition to drinks and food outdoors, Ryburn reported, George's Majestic Lounge used the Outdoor Refreshment Area to bring music back to Dickson Street. The establishment turned the parking area west of the building into a makeshift space with a small stage and speaker system, with tables set a safe distance apart and enough room to play Baggo.
"We're trying to find a pulse in the old girl again," said owner Brian Crowne.
Springdale City Council approved its "Outdoor Dining District" on Aug. 11 and it opened Aug. 14. Restaurants will serve drinks for the district from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday.
Fort Smith will have outdoor entertainment districts downtown and in the Chaffee Crossing Historic Area.
And Rogers is discussing its options.
Only Eureka Springs said "no" to outdoor drinking. On Nov. 3, voters rejected a permanent entertainment district 641-518.
"I'm disappointed that the concept of an outdoor entertainment district that would allow people to drink alcohol outside of an establishment was defeated," Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry told NWADG reporter Bill Bowden. "I thought it was an element that would help the tourism, especially in these pandemic times."