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OPINION | REX NELSON: The northwest boom

by Rex Nelson | April 4, 2021 at 9:02 a.m.

A recent scan of the newspaper gave me a sense of the economic boom in northwest Arkansas and the planning being done there to accommodate continued growth.

Mike Jones of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about the city of Bentonville’s $266 million bond package that’s going before voters April 13. The bonds, which include $32.75 million for parks, would be paid by extending a 1-cent sales tax.

Octavio Sanchez, a member of the Bentonville City Council, noted correctly that parks “are a fundamental feature of our city, as they offer a gathering place, as well as many sports and recreational activities. There’s never too many of them.”

Jones wrote: “In addition to recreation, parks increase property values, bolster local economies, discourage crime and protect cities environmentally, according to the website of City Parks Alliance, a national nonprofit in Washington. Adding parks and trails west of Walton Boulevard in Bentonville is a key initiative under the city’s Play Bentonville and Connect Bentonville plans.

“Play Bentonville is the Parks Department’s 10-year master plan and Connect Bentonville is the city’s bike and pedestrian master plan.”

When Walmart and the Walton family donated 100 acres to the city for additional park property, Dan Bartlett, the company’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, said the hope was that “trails will connect the future Walmart home office campus to the park so our associates can take advantage of even more green space and enjoy the natural beauty of our region. As we recruit top talent from around the globe, we’ll continue to invest in Bentonville to help make it a great place to live, work and play.”

I sometimes hear jealous civic and business leaders in other parts of the state say things along these lines: “Just think what we could do with Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt.”

What comments like those ignore is the extensive planning and regional coordination that has gone on for years, making northwest Arkansas what it is today. Initiatives such as Play Bentonville and Connect Bentonville are evidence of such planning.

Long ago, the folks in this corner of the state figured out that economic development in the 21st century is about much more than recruiting businesses. It’s about recruiting talented, highly educated people who could live anywhere. You attract such people with quality-of-life amenities.

After reading the article out of Bentonville, I turned to a news story from Fayetteville in which council members discussed a new cultural arts corridor downtown.

“We’ve got something here that’s going to inspire the community for generations, not just for those of us who get to help make it happen,” said council member Matthew Petty.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said: “I’m going to take full and complete responsibility for this. If it doesn’t work out, you can tell everybody that the mayor brought us the wrong kind of vision.” Jordan shouldn’t worry. The leadership in Fayetteville shares the vision of those in Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale, a vision that’s making northwest Arkansas one of the most desirable places in the country to live. With the U.S. economy set to soar as the pandemic winds down, that growth will only accelerate.

My newspaper reading continued with a story by Alex Golden of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that was headlined “Rogers is abuzz with residential, business projects.”

“The area just south of the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion has several developments either recently completed or well on their way,” Golden wrote. “Tom Allen, a representative of Pinnacle Heights, said the mixed-use project is done. Construction of the development, spanning 13 acres off South Champions Drive, began in late 2018.

“The housing part of Pinnacle Heights has nearly 300 apartment units, which include 11 spaces where residents can live and operate businesses. … Pinnacle Heights also sold some of the land to Hilton, which plans to build one of its boutique hotels, Tapestry by Hilton, Allen said.”

The story also reported on these developments in the neighborhood:

Founders Plaza, which is being built by Hunt Ventures. General Mills will take the top floor. Two other multistory office buildings, Hunt Tower and Northgate Plaza, had previously been built in the area.

One Uptown, which is across the street from Pinnacle Heights. The three-story 64,000-square-foot building and an adjacent parking garage are nearing completion.

Pinnacle Village, which will include housing, offices, retail space, a hotel and amenities such as a dog park. Site work has begun on the 27-acre development, which is east of Pinnacle Hills Parkway and south of Pauline Whitaker Parkway. Construction of the first of two apartment buildings and the first office building is expected to start next year. Alex Blass, one of the developers, said he’s also negotiating with a high-end hotel group to be part of the project.

Bellview Urban Center, another Blass project. A craft brewery known as Rendezvous Junction is expected to move into the first building this summer. Blass will soon break ground on a second building. He’s negotiating with a restaurant and a karaoke bar to move into part of that 30,000-square foot structure.

Speaking of high-end hotels, a South Carolina developer is proposing a six-story building in booming downtown Bentonville for a Motto by Hilton. Motto was launched in October 2018 as Hilton’s 15th hotel brand. The 175-room hotel is slated to open in the fourth quarter of next year. The first U.S. Motto location opened in Washington, D.C., in the third quarter of 2020.

Also in downtown Bentonville, construction started last October on a 230,000-square-foot office and retail building known as the Ledger. This six-story building will be another architectural landmark with its exterior design incorporating a bikeable and walkable path with a zig-zag switchback pattern. It will provide direct outdoor entry on every floor with terraces for open-air access. The building is slated to open early next year.

It seems that a big announcement comes out of the region every week. The biggest thus far this year occurred early last month when Alice Walton announced plans to build an independent, nonprofit medical school at Bentonville. Construction of the Whole Health School of Medicine will begin next year with completion scheduled for 2024.

Walton announced in January 2020 that she will create the Whole Health Institute and Chopra Library, a nonprofit organization focused on health care. That institute will be housed in an architectural jewel of a building on the campus of Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The medical school location hasn’t been announced. Anyone who has ever visited Crystal Bridges or The Momentary at Bentonville knows both the institute and medical school will be world-class facilities.

“The Whole Health School of Medicine will help medical students rise to the health challenges of the 21st century through a re-imagination of American medical education that incorporates mental, emotional, physical and spritual health . . . to help people live healthier and happier lives,” Walton said.

Future doctors will be trained to focus on preventive health practices and overall well-being in addition to disease treatment. This approach will include nutrition, exercise and stress reduction.

Dr. Tracy Gaudet, who previously served as executive director of the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, is already on board as the institute’s executive director. Construction of the institute’s 75,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 2023.

If there’s an end in sight for the northwest Arkansas boom, which barely slowed during the pandemic, I don’t see it.

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

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