'Waltonians' blend in with hometown crowd

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Sam Walton began his Wal-Mart empire as a small dime store in Bentonville, the northernmost of four cities that stretch north-south along the Interstate 540 corridor in northwest Arkansas. In Wal-Mart's early days, it wasn't uncommon to find the founder popping into stores on surprise visits. He led "associates" in the Wal-Mart cheer as he did later did at stockholders meetings, which would attract thousands.

Now, Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters sprawls alongside Walton Boulevard in southwest Bentonville, a few miles to the south of the original dime store. The site of the first store on the Bentonville Square is now a Wal-Mart museum.

Much of the region's rapid growth can be attributed to Wal-Mart's decree that the company's vendors locate representatives in northwest Arkansas. The cities along I-540-Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and the company's hometown-make up most of the population in the Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers MSA. The June 2003 Milken Institute Best Performing Cities index (which looks at U.S. metropolitan areas by economic performance and job creation) ranks the northwest Arkansas MSA No.1, up from 23 in 2002. The 2000 Census shows a population of 347,045 in the MSA, projected to reach as much as 559,680 by 2030.

With five Supercenters and a Sam's Wholesale store located in the four largest cities in northwest Arkansas, the company has a significant impact on employment in the area. But much of the hometown feeling of Wal-Mart left when founder Sam Walton died.

The company that everyone used to want to work for now draws a snicker or a sympathetic sigh when a fresh-faced college graduate says, "I work for Wal-Mart corporate." Middle managers are expected to come to work early, leave late and work six days a week in a building remarkable only for having few windows.

blending in

They're known locally as "Waltonians." Working in the Wal-Mart corporate atmosphere might not be for everyone anymore, but there are scores of workers who started early with the company as cashiers or stock clerks and retired as millionaires because of the company's lucrative stock-options plan and a series of stock splits during the 1980s.

For the most part, though, even the upper managers at Wal-Mart simply blend in with the crowd. So it's not unusual to find a man in a three-piece suit sitting next to a man wearing pair of bib overalls with chewing tobacco stains in the stands at local sporting events.

Of course, there's an occasional grumbling.

"What's that kid doing at quarterback?"

"Hey, he can really throw the football."

"Yeah, but it's end-over-end."

"His dad works for Wal-Mart."

"Oh."

Small towns in Arkansas (and there aren't many big ones) used to measure their growth by three things: a Pizza Hut, a McDonald's and a Wal-Mart. Now, one can find all three under one roof, along with a grocery store and gas station at a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Supercenters also include automated tellers for customers with an Arvest Bank account, at least in Arkansas. Arvest Banks are owned by the Walton family, so shoppers can conveniently take their money out of a Walton-owned bank to spend in a Walton-owned store.

But the Walton family has given more than its share back to its northwest Arkansas neighbors, sponsoring everything from youth athletic teams to a $300 million grant to the University of Arkansas, the largest ever to a state university. Local stores also sponsor a variety of events in different regions.

Fayetteville, the largest city in the MSA, is home to the University of Arkansas, which boasts Bud Walton Arena, a 20,000-seat, state-of-the-art basketball arena where the Razorbacks play and Wal-Mart holds its annual stockholders meeting.

The Waltons also help educate a ready-made work force with the Sam M. Walton Business College at UA. At the newly built Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, travelers arrive and leave at the Alice Walton Terminal. Alice, the only Walton daughter, was instrumental in efforts to finance the regional airport.

Daily non-stop flights

The airport was built primarily to handle Wal-Mart's flow of vendors and corporate travelers. The major cities in the area cooperated to build the airport. Now there are daily non-stop flights to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Charlotte and Atlanta from what was a hayfield just 10 years ago.

The Walton Arts Center occupies an entire city block in downtown Fayetteville, and has hosted everything from Broadway shows to country-and-western acts.

Wal-Mart has been accused of closing downtown businesses, but cities in northwest Arkansas have solved that by simply relocating near Wal-Mart and using the retail giant as a magnet store. While Wal-Mart sells merchandise in bulk, the smaller businesses sell their services. Downtowns are for museums, restaurants, and-the big draw-banks.

In an area where the unemployment rate hovers around 2.5%, people in northwest Arkansas have come to take Wal-Mart for granted-at least until it's time to cash their paychecks.

Mr. Caudle is a senior reporter at The Morning News in Springdale, Ark.

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