"We didn't even have a working traffic light," recalls Mr. Clifford, president-CEO of the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce. Today there are plenty of lights-and BMWs buzzing through them.
Gone are the days when Wal-Mart recruits, or Wal-Mart suppliers' salespeople, feared the moment that they had to tell their wives or husbands that they had landed a plum job-in a little Arkansas town. Bentonville now boasts white-tablecloth restaurants, high-end spas and sprawling McMansions in golf communities with names like Shadow Valley and Pinnacle Country Club where prices top $1 million.
And as Wal-Mart aims to swell its marketing ranks by as many as 60 high-level executives, it will need every boutique store and well-tended putting green.
"I was looking for a different challenge and willing to take a lifestyle change to be a part of that," said Stephen Quinn, senior VP-marketing at Wal-Mart, who left Dallas and a position as chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay in 2005. "Bentonville is evolving so rapidly-you need to figure out what it will look like in three to five years in coming here."
That's not to say Mr. Quinn doesn't expect a recruiting challenge ahead for Wal-Mart. "If you were single ... it might not be your first choice, but it's a great place to raise kids," said Mr. Quinn, who is married with three children.
For Robert Atencio, who left Dallas and a top marketing job at Frito-Lay in December to join Wal-Mart as VP-insight and customer strategy, the small-town amenities aren't so small in some ways. "Anyone who loves golf, there's plenty of golf here," he said.
Golf may be among the more developed recreations in Bentonville, but fine dining, spa and salon service have come a long way, too. Not even five years ago, the nicest restaurant, and the only place to go for a decent steak, was Fred's Hickory Inn. Two years ago, white-tablecloth fine dining came to town with the opening of Oscar's Prime Rib & Steak House, where patrons pay $32 for the finest cut of prime rib.
It topped the offerings of the River Grill, opened four years ago, and a known hangout for suppliers. More recently, a Copeland's opened and a P.F. Chang's is rumored to be on its way.
Two malls are under construction, as are three small-scale lifestyle centers. "People fly into Dallas or Kansas City for the day or go into Tulsa [for shopping]. We're getting there, but we're not there today," said Mr. Clifford.
Spas and upscale hair salons are also popping up everywhere, like the Bliss Salon & Spa, opened three years ago just minutes from Wal-Mart headquarters. At the ritzy salon, you can get a one-hour full body massage for $60 and a pedicure and manicure for $50.
"The influx of city folk has changed everything. They have brought that culture with them and they have demanded that culture here," said Stacy Walton, an independent real estate broker in Bentonville (no relation to the Wal-Mart Waltons).
And this being Wal-Mart country, there are plenty of comparative bargains.
Just last week, a Wal-Mart recruit from Orange County, Calif., was bowled over by the 5,000-square-foot home in the Shadow Valley development offered at less than $1 million.
And by 2009, Bentonville will even get its own art museum-Crystal Bridges. The planned 100,000-square-foot facility will house a staff of 75 dedicated to American art, thanks to millions in donations from Alice Walton, heir to a multimillion-dollar Wal-Mart fortune.
Just this weekend, for as little as $28 you could go hear the North Arkansas Symphony play scores from "Harry Potter" and "The Godfather," among others, at a concert titled "Music and the Movies."
The symphony performs at the Walton Arts Center, opened in 1986-again with millions in funds from the Walton family.
But even with Bentonville's rise above small-town status, Wal-Mart's ambition to lure top talent will take an aggressive effort to overcome perception, according to Cameron Smith of Cameron Smith Associates. "My perception of Bentonville was always something between the `Deliverance' movie and `Huckleberry Finn' until I got here," he said.
Today Mr. Smith manages hundreds of placements a year, after launching the firm shortly after arriving in Bentonville 13 years ago from Laguna Beach, Calif.-because he lost a coin toss to his wife, an Arkansas native.
Even so, he admits it's easier to build vendor teams from thousands of resumes of those already living in town, rather than out-of-towners. "When companies say, `Hey Frank, we'd like you and family to move to Arkansas,' they still say, `yeah right,"' he said.