OPINION | REX NELSON: A familiar approach

The approach is familiar by now. Writers produce stories on the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas and feel the need to say something along these lines: "There must be something wrong, though, since part of it is being funded by the evil Walton family."

Those writers then feel secure that they haven't lost any woke readers or friends. The most recent entry in this oh-so-predictable genre comes in Dwell magazine from Olivia Paschal, who was raised in northwest Arkansas.

"There's something kind of tragic about watching the place you grew up become a caricature of what a few rich people think the proles must want," Paschal writes.

Nice word, that "proles." Your friends will be impressed. The snark is thick.

"I don't love property values and housing costs rising so quickly that buying a home, which would have been very feasible for someone like me a decade or two ago, now appears all but impossible," Paschal writes. "I will not soon forget the experience of sitting in Onyx, a ritzy coffee shop (no really, it's won international awards) a few blocks from the modest, cheap house I was born in on the manufacturing side of town, in the previously abandoned downtown that has only recently become 'cool' again thanks to millions of dollars in Walton investments, and being told proudly by a man trying to hit on me that he had bought 'the last house in downtown Rogers.'"

Here's what such writers fail to consider: Perhaps the Walton family's motives are pure. Sure, adding quality-of-life amenities helps attract talented employees to the state. But maybe--just maybe--people like Alice and Jim Walton (and Jim's sons Tom and Steuart) had a great experience growing up in Arkansas. Maybe--just maybe--they want to use part of their fortune to help the state and its residents do well.

The key to Arkansas' future in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century is attracting and retaining talented people. Maybe--just maybe--Alice, Jim, Tom, Steuart, et al., get it.

"The Ozarks were not as separated from culture as Alice Walton would have it," Paschal writes. "We just had our own. Ozark folk music, Ozark outdoors culture, Ozark folk art, Ozark vernacular architecture all predated the Walton cultural influx. In the 1970s, the Ozarks attracted back-to-the-landers, part of the era's counterculture, who started communes, cults and art communities across the hills. There were UFO conferences, lesbian separatist communes.

"Eureka Springs, about an hour outside of Bentonville, was the center of the Ozarks art world long before Crystal Bridges was a thought in Alice Walton's mind. A Victorian resort town, it was the gathering place for the queer culture in the region, for folk artists and farmers while--as historian Bethany Moreton recounts--Walmart was still projecting an image of fundamentalist Christianity and the gender norms that came with it."

Paschal conveniently forgets several things. First, the young, bright people attracted to jobs in northwest Arkansas are just the kind of people most likely to contribute money to institutions such as the Ozark Folk Center at Mountain View, entities that keep traditional Ozark culture alive.

Second, while Pascal mentions "Ozarks outdoors culture," she fails to recognize that no one is doing more to protect and enhance this state's outdoor recreational assets than Tom and Steuart Walton. Their multimillion-dollar investments reach far beyond the Ozarks to places such as the Delta and Hot Springs.

Third, the wealth now being generated in northwest Arkansas provides the best opportunity in decades for capital investments in quirky Eureka Springs. Such capital is needed to protect the town's architecture and culture. Homes and buildings have suffered from years of neglect and cry out for rehabilitation.

Paschal even takes a shot at FORMAT (an acronym of For Music + Art + Technology), which will be held Sept. 23-25. The festival was founded by events company Triadic and will be produced in partnership with C3 Presents, which produces Lollapalooza in Chicago and Austin City Limits in Texas.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary have signed on as partners with OZ Brands, an entity associated with Tom and Steuart Walton. There will be music performances from more than 50 artists along with site-specific art commissions on 250 acres six minutes from downtown Bentonville.

Paschal huffs that "the FORMAT festival is not for people who already live in northwest Arkansas."

She must have missed the fact that many of the people who "already live in northwest Arkansas" have come from other states in recent decades, attracted by good jobs and the quality of life. The festival is indeed for these people, the kind of people Arkansas needs more of. There's a group out there who believe you can't have economic growth without killing the things that made a place special in the first place.

Northwest Arkansas is proof those people are wrong. Among cities with at least 50,000 people, Bentonville was the fastest-growing city in the state and the 28th fastest-growing city in the nation from April 1, 2020, to July 1, 2021. Its population rose 4.8 percent from 54,120 to 56,734. The number of housing units in Benton County rose 4.6 percent during that period, the 31st fastest rate in the country.

Outdoor opportunities, however, are being protected like never before thanks to groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ozark Society. Managing growth wisely is a balancing act, but northwest Arkansas appears to be pulling it off.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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