Former British prime minister Boris Johnson compares Bentonville to heaven; McConaughey discusses Uvalde at summit

Steuart Walton and Boris Johnson, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, share the stage Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023, during the Heartland Summit in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/DOUG THOMPSON)

BENTONVILLE -- Boris Johnson, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, told a Bentonville crowd Wednesday he has a more "firm view of the afterlife" from attending the Heartland Summit there, comparing the town to "heaven, absolute heaven" after bicycling along trails there earlier that day.

But such an impression carries risks, said the host of Johnson's discussion at the summit, Bentonville businessman Steuart Walton.

"People ask, 'What else could be possibly needed here?'" Walton told Johnson. "I think this is the biggest threat to this region, this sense of complacency."

To keep middle America moving forward is the purpose of the summit, a conference of 350 policymakers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, business leaders, investors and others organized by Heartland Forward, a think-tank and strategic planning group based in Bentonville. Discussion is free-wheeling, organizers said. The views expressed by speakers are their own, and their appearance does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent, organizers said.

Johnson appeared at the opening ceremonies Wednesday night at the Record event center downtown. He said he believes the region will continue to progress. In particular, his discussion that morning with Alice Walton, Steuart's aunt, about her "vision for health care in Arkansas" was particularly encouraging, he said.

"She was actually inspirational," Johnson said. "It seemed to me she had all the right answers."

Philanthropist Alice Walton is founder of the Whole Health Institute and the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine, both under development in Bentonville.

Brothers Steuart and Tom Walton and Tom's wife, Olivia, opened the summit with their own panel discussion. They are co-founders of the summit, which first met in 2018 and met again last year, after the covid-19 pandemic. Kelly Corrigan, host of PBS' "Tell Me More," served as moderator.

All the panel discussions centered around ways to improve coordination and cooperation within communities.

The Walton brothers talked of their belief Northwest Arkansas' status as a bicycling leader will grow.

Johnson, an avid cyclist, gave advice on that. During his tenure as mayor of London, he converted the city into a world leader of cycling as a means of personal transport, according to Steuart Walton.

"I want to be very clear about this. You can't just put in bicycle lanes," Johnson told the crowd. A city wanting a thriving bicycle culture must open its roads to bicycle riders. Motorists will get accustomed to sharing the road if there are enough bicycles on it, he said.

"My masterstroke was -- no helmets," Johnson said. "I didn't want to interrupt desire to get on a bike. Everybody started to do it" after removing the requirement to wear a helmet.

Until then, bicycling was done by physically "fit middle-class male professionals. I wanted everybody to do it." After the commuter culture changed, the number of accidents and injuries went down, not just proportionately "but absolutely," he said.

The final speaker, questioned by Corrigan, was actor Matthew McConaughey of Uvalde, Texas. McConaughey founded the Greenlights Grant Initiative dedicated to improving school safety after the school shooting in his hometown on May 24, 2022, that killed 19 students and two adults.

The actor and his wife "met with over 36 congressmen and women" trying to arrive at solutions to such massacres. The most meaningful meeting they had was a meal where Democratic and Republican members of Congress intermingled, he said.

"We broke bread together," McConaughey said. "I was surprised by how novel that was."

Congress members don't get together socially, he found out. They don't have regular conversations with each other outside work.

Eventually, federal grants and loans were created setting aside "billions of dollars for mental health, panic buttons and metal detectors" for schools, he said. Months after that, "the congressman for Uvalde County told me that out of 119 school districts [in his congressional district], 12 had applied and none had been granted."

The 50-page grant application was daunting, he said. There was also reluctance to ask the federal government for anything, he said. The foundation he helped found formed and agreed to provide grant-writing services for the highest-risk districts, he said.

"I learned things I did not know," McConaughey said. "The wheels of government turn slowly -- and there are people holding a hose to make sure the ground stays muddy and that wheel keeps on spinning."

He also learned how much difference wording makes. "Say 'gun control' and people hear 'control,'" he said. "Say 'gun responsibility' and that's a choice. Just change a word, and more people listened."