If Sam Walton were alive, he might have trouble recognizing the hub of the empire he created.
Downtown Bentonville, home to the original Walton's 5 and 10, has been transformed in recent years thanks to the success of his business and the largess of his heirs. His original store still stands, around the corner from the Walmart vendor outpost of DreamWorks. Down the road is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the first major art museum to open in the U.S. since 1974, thanks to more than $300 million invested by his daughter, Alice Walton. There are tony, if reasonably priced, restaurants such as Table Mesa and the Hive, the latter located at 21c Museum Hotel, a boutique hotel and art museum. Bentonville has also lured young professional residents and even, some say, hipsters.
A growing test market
If so, they'll surely find irony in this: Bentonville has become hip and urban enough that some people in the area believe it's morphing into a laboratory for executives at the spartan Walmart headquarters down the street. Lately the area has been dotted with a bevy of Neighborhood Markets described by some vendor executives as a "density test" of how many an urban area can accommodate. Near the town square is a building under construction that people familiar with the matter say will house an even more upscale "downtown" Walmart concept store with high-end foodservice and organic fare. A Walmart spokesman said there was no "density test" in the area, and that there "are no drastic changes" expected in the store under construction downtown.
There's a growing disconnect between expectations from folks unfamiliar with the capital of Walmart country and the reality of a large, increasingly diverse community, which also has grown into a marketing services and tech hub.
Bentonville anchors the north portion of the urban center of this metro area, with nearly 500,000 in total population. The "core" also includes Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville, along a roughly 20-mile stretch of Interstate 49, formerly I-540, a sort of main street with a 70-mile-per-hour speed limit.
Still, there are signs of trouble in Vendorville, as the community of vendors clustered around Walmart is sometimes called. As Walmart's growth has slowed in recent years, some vendors have pulled back staffing in the area.
Collective Bias, a social and shopper marketing agency founded in 2009 by former Walmart marketer John Andrews, has 105 employees spread across seven offices, including New York and London. CEO Bill Sussman is particularly excited these days, he says, "by growth we've had outside Bentonville." Shopper-marketing teams in the area are starting to realize what they do "isn't Walmart-specific," he said. "It's a shopper-marketing knowledge base."
Rockfish, a digital agency founded in Rogers in 2006 and now part of WPP, has offices in eight cities, and CEO Kenny Tomlin is now based in Austin. Still, said Rockfish Senior VP-Talent Acquisition and Human Resources Lisa Bridgers, "The startup vibe and tech entrepreneurship draws talent here. People see this as a place where you can bring a great tech idea and get funded and started."
While getting people into Northwest Arkansas can be a tough sell, frequently they stay a long time. Take Henry Ho, a Chinese-American New Yorker and die-hard Yankees fan, who was among the first "feet on the ground" from Procter & Gamble when its top sales executive, Lou Pritchett, agreed with Mr. Walton to locate the first vendor enclave in Fayetteville -- 20 miles from Bentonville -- in 1989. The idea was that the distance would prevent fraternization among vendor and retailer executives, a notion discarded long ago.
At the time, it was jokingly dubbed "Fayette-Nam," Mr. Ho recalls. Yet he fell in love with the area. After a tour of duty that saw him become VP of P&G's Hong Kong division, he opted to return to Northwest Arkansas rather than Geneva or Cincinnati when he accepted a P&G global e-commerce assignment in 2000. In 2009, he became co-founder of Field Agent, which operates a mobile-phone-based panel of consumers for shopper and marketing research.
It was a similar story for another New Yorker, Mark Levine, who first came to Bentonville 20 years ago as part of one of the first marketing shops in town, representing Fuji Film. He had to go online to a dating site run by AOL to find a Jewish woman in town -- she later became his wife. Then, 10 years ago, he helped start Bentonville's first synagogue.
"The joke is that people scratch on their way here to stay out," Mr. Levine said, "and then scream and yell on their way out because they don't want to leave."