REX NELSON: Innovation in Arkansas

Last Sunday in this space, I wrote about what I call the Arkansas Era, a time in which this traditionally poor rural state surprises the rest of the country with its cultural and economic advances.

I pegged the start of the current era to Nov. 11, 2011, the day Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened at Bentonville. Americans have started to think differently about Arkansas, and Arkansans have begun to think differently about themselves.

That encouraging trend will accelerate after the pandemic as Arkansas bounces back far more quickly economically than many other states. Walmart sales were up 20 percent in March. The pandemic will change the way Americans live and work in fundamental ways, and Walmart is positioned to become an even more important part of their lives than before.

That can only be good for Arkansas, especially considering how members of the Walton family are investing their enormous resources into this state for everything from art museums to mountain biking trails to cutting-edge restaurants and entertainment concepts. The fact that large trail grants have gone to places such as Hot Springs and the Arkansas Delta is a sign that the Waltons view the state as a whole and don't just concentrate their efforts on the northwest corner.

Throw in the news that Amazon has begun work on a fulfillment center on 80 acres that had been owned by the Little Rock Port Authority. The distribution center will cover 3 million square feet and have four levels. I'm told it will employ between 1,500 and 2,000 people.

With the pandemic dominating the news, Arkansans have yet to comprehend how big this is for the state. This distribution center could create thousands of additional jobs as companies that supply Amazon set up operations in Little Rock.

Bryan Day, the port's executive director, said Amazon will bring "significant jobs, significant capital investment, and we were able to generate revenues through the sales of this land, which will allow us to continue acquiring land for future development."

Having additional land is going to be key, given the companies that will want to locate near the fulfillment center. Though not related to Amazon, one should consider the words of Mark Greenwell, president of Arcturus Aerospace, a California aerospace manufacturer that's relocating to Little Rock. He noted the region's "skilled workforce, logistical advantages and competitive business climate."

There's reason to believe that Amazon will help transform Little Rock into a major distribution hub thanks to its river harbor, modern airport and converging interstate highways. Throw in the growth of high-tech companies such as Apptegy (in the Simmons Bank Tower in downtown Little Rock) and Orion (which recently opened a headquarters in downtown North Little Rock). The combination of having Walmart headquartered in northwest Arkansas and Amazon with Little Rock as a regional hub is a one-two punch for Arkansas.

What's happening in this Arkansas Era is being noticed on the national stage. An April article in The Architect's Newspaper was headlined "Innovation in Arkansas shouldn't be overlooked."

Sydney Franklin wrote about the architectural innovation taking place across the state. Not long ago, the vast majority of Arkansans were too busy just trying to scratch out a living to worry about things such as architecture. It's refreshing to see coverage in national publications now focusing on such topics.

"A powerful combination of natural resources and local initiatives is pushing one Southern state to the forefront of architectural innovation in the country," Franklin wrote. "In Arkansas, a place that's far from the profession's traditional epicenters in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, big things are happening.

"In Bentonville, Wheeler Kearns Architects just repurposed a defunct Kraft cheese factory into The Momentary, the contemporary offshoot of the Moshe Safdie-designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

"Over 200 miles south in Little Rock, Studio Gang and SCAPE Landscape Architecture are working together to renovate and extend the Arkansas Arts Center, a 104-year-old cultural institution attached to MacArthur Park. Construction on the 127,000-square-foot project broke ground last fall.

"At the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, a massive research complex, the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation, is slated to come online in 2022 courtesy of Grafton Architects. Last year, the school finished the country's largest mass timber building, Adohi Hall, a 202,027-square-foot dormitory designed by a team led by Leers Weinzapfel Associates."

The growth of mass timber manufacturing is positive news in a state that's more than 50 percent covered in forestland. It's especially good news in the pine belt of south Arkansas, which has struggled the past several decades.

"The timber industry is one of the state's biggest economic drivers," Franklin wrote. "The Walton family is another. The Walton Family Foundation has made it its mission to develop high-design public buildings and community gathering spaces for the state's Washington and Benton counties. . . .

"Since Walmart made the latter its home base, it has required all collaborators and retailers to set up shop in the area as well, thereby forcefully growing the population year after year. The ripple effects of Walmart's investment are already being felt around the state.

"While Adohi Hall might hold the title of America's biggest mass timber building now, the design for Walmart's new timber-structure home office in nearby Bentonville will surpass it with 2.5 million square feet of mid-rise office space and amenity buildings."

The 350-acre corporate campus is going to be unlike anything this state has ever seen, more like something one would expect to find in the Silicon Valley. A Canadian company, Structurlam Mass Timber Corp., announced in December that it will retrofit an existing building in Conway with Walmart being the buyer of about one-third of its products. Walmart is planning to use 1.1 million cubic feet of timber products for the corporate campus.

Hardy Wentzel, Structurlam's chief executive officer, told Franklin that Walmart's commitment "really helped solidify our desire to move to Arkansas in our first U.S. expansion. I wanted to anchor my investment with a large contract, and Walmart was the perfect opportunity."

Jonathan Marvel of Marvel Architects said Arkansas now "thinks of itself as the epicenter of arts between Chicago and Miami, and if you look around, it feels that way. When it comes to building the city of Fayetteville itself, there's a significant amount of attention and pride devoted to craftsmanship and ownership here."

Marlon Blackwell, who has worked as an architect in Arkansas since 1992, is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects' highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal.

"Many of us are standing on the shoulders of great native architects like E. Fay Jones and Warren Dennis Segraves," he told Franklin. "But the difference between our work and theirs is that we are now taking on the public realm. There are many younger firms out there willing to fight the good fight and push progressive thinking on major civic projects. It's a continual battle, but much of our recent success has also come from an enlightened clientele."


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

Editorial on 05/03/2020