By Lee LaMarche
Northwest Arkansas is quickly becoming the new arts and culture hub of the country. For decades people flocked to Austin, Texas for their cool dining, low cost of living, and amazing arts scene. But now Austin has become just like everywhere else. Prices are sky-high, the arts districts are clogged with tourists, and traffic is making residents crazy. So, the map is shifting. People always need their next best destination. Northwest Arkansas seems to be it.
The main spot is a small town called Bentonville. It lies close to the Missouri border and is known primarily for being the home of Walmart. It is as close to a company town as the country has and its residents live in a balanced stasis with the company, the Walton family, and their vice grip on area real estate.
In the past fifteen years, the town has become the most popular spot for people moving out of California. It is also the mountain biking capital of the world, boasting endless trails for every level of rider. It is also home to Crystal Bridges, a museum built by Alice Walton and started with her collection of American art. It is now the single largest collection of American art in the world, boasts its own Frank Lloyd Wright house, and is currently in the middle of an enormous expansion that will more than double its size.
According to Bentonville’s official website, between 1990 and 2010 the town’s population increased by 313% to reach 35,000. This same number is projected to be over 72,000 by 2030. This means big changes for a town that still boasts an adorable square, tree-lighting ceremony, and weekly farmer’s markets. People who own houses are seeing massive property gains and people looking for houses in town are often priced out. Overflow is abundant as many are choosing to live in the adjacent towns of Rogers and Bella Vista.
Five years ago, in 2019, My wife Hillary and I moved here from Boston so she could work for Walmart. It was a strange transition. We saw the state's politics and heard all the stories but decided to come anyway. We were not disappointed. Northwest Arkansas boasts a disproportionate number of liberal-minded voters than the rest of the state. It is also largely tolerant of different viewpoints. The same cannot be said for places like Little Rock. But perhaps that is what makes it so appealing to outsiders. In my five years, I have witnessed a level of change that boggles the mind. Homes that were of reasonable value and within walking distance of the town square can now only be purchased for millions of dollars. People who have lived here their entire lives in modest homes now find themselves living beside newly built mansions and ultra-modern dwellings that dwarf their own. Because of these changes, farmers are selling their land at a premium, turning once green hills into flattened brown dirt and then apartment complexes. There are more carwashes than we need and more self-storage businesses than people can handle.
Our airport, XNA, is also going through changes. To handle the new crush of outsiders they have taken steps to add a second terminal and a new air traffic control tower. The small airport, where a week’s parking will cost $40 will soon be unimaginably hard to get into and far less efficient. Those in charge do not seem to understand that what they are doing will only paper the cracks instead of actually fixing them.
That being said, there are positives. We are now the home of some of the most interesting innovations and innovative businesses in the country. Delivery drones fly overhead, autonomous vehicles are tested on city streets, and holistic views of medicine are being taught to a new generation of medical professionals. The arts are thriving, the craft breweries are still in business, and you can find a yoga class and an artisanal ice cream shop on a Wednesday evening. Colleges are close by, the food truck industry is thriving, and each day a new mural is painted on a new wall by a new bright young artist.
The town is being invaded in a way that feels parasitic while those of us who have lived here for even just a few years feel the squeeze. Local traditions are becoming touristy cliches. Even Walmart has a museum of its history. One that weird yahoos flock to on their precious vacations. We root for the U of A Hogs and bitch about how the town keeps closing roads to widen them. As the new Walmart home office campus is being built we marvel at its buildings, with most of the town considering just which one they’ll be going to every day. The rest of us lament the traffic it will cause, the lines it will put at our favorite coffee place, and how much time it will add to what is currently a ten-minute trip to the aforementioned airport on the other side of town.
Is Bentonville ready for these changes? We’ll have to see. The infrastructure is being modified as we speak and the town fathers seem to be getting their ceremonial scissors out to cut the ribbon on their shiny new plaything. The rest of us continue to shop at our neighborhood markets, know which Walmarts to avoid (I see you, store 1), and think about how our slightly traditional values are slowly being sapped as the crunchy-granola, West Coast set starts moving in. People, and Americans in particular, are like locusts. We swoop in, destroy pristine farmland, suck out the resources, pave the forests, and decide the place looks too much like every other place and leave. Bentonville residents are attempting to weather a storm of unbelievable proportions but I don’t think we’re quite ready for what’s about to come our way.
Hillary and I are comfortable in our home. We live in a cookie-cutter suburb with an HOA and decent neighbors. Our backyard is fenced in with a ravine behind it, preventing us from having directly abutting homes. We watch each other’s dogs and pick up the mail when someone goes on vacation. We invite our friends on our pontoon boat on Beaver Lake in the summer and sip hot cider at Airship Coffee in the winter. We have a life here that we could never have anywhere else and we hope that we, and the area, can sustain it.
I believe that with the right planning, we can make it work. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, we are still in that “little-known” phase of growth. Bentonville is only on the map for some people. But those in the know are attempting to get in on the ground floor. We came here because there were jobs, and many others are doing so for the same reason. It’s hard to imagine that five years makes us veterans of the area but being an elder millennial, I know what it means to see a new generation trying to usurp something I helped build. This town may not feel big enough for all of us, but the real estate agents and construction companies are having some of the best years of their lives.
So if you have the money, and preferably a decent dual-income household, are looking for good schools or just some interesting culture, why not steer into the trend and make your way to Northwest Arkansas? I’m a decent neighbor and as long as you promise you won’t vote for a Huckabee Sanders ticket I’d be happy to share a drink. We all need to bond over something, and here it seems to be the growing numbers of new people. So the sooner you get here, the sooner you can join this side of the argument. Can’t wait to meet you.