See Arkansas in a new way in Bentonville
This is the town that Walmart built.
As the headquarters city of the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, Bentonville often plays host to people from all over — whether they’re coming there to work for the company or to peddle their latest product.
But in the past decade, people have increasingly started coming to this Arkansas city for fun and business.
The town of approximately 50,000 has rapidly developed as a hub not only for global commerce, but also for the arts, outdoor recreation, and dining.
In short, it’s become a bastion of culture and entertainment in northwest Arkansas, which is only a four-hour drive away from Wichita.
And it’s precisely where I found myself over the Fourth of July holiday, seeking a break from the standard weekend-trip destinations of Kansas City or Oklahoma City.
Here are a few of the attractions that can be found in Bentonville:
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bentonville’s new-ish art museum is its pièce de résistance, so to speak.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in 2011, the culmination of a nearly billon-dollar investment in the area by Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation.
It may look familiar to anyone who’s driven through downtown Wichita since 2000.
Internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie designed the Bentonville museum — which shares much of its architectural style with Wichita’s Exploration Place (which Safdie also designed in the late ‘90s).
While he was working on the design of Crystal Bridges, Safdie was also designing Kansas City’s distinctive Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts —completing a sort of trilogy of Safdie buildings in the Midwest.
Crystal Bridges is set on 120 acres of Ozark woodlands, and guests wind through a curving forest trail to get to the museum.
The museum itself is a logical destination for fans of the Wichita Art Museum, as Crystal Bridges houses an impressive collection of American art from 1675 to the present.
The sheer magnitude of the art on display here is stunning — you can see everything from Rothkos to O’Keeffes, Warhols to Durands.
My favorite part: Outside, in the nearly four miles of trails surrounding the museum, you can find Chihuly glass sculptures on display — in the woods.
And the best part: It’s all free (except for temporary rotating exhibitions, which are ticketed).
More than 600,000 people visit the museum on a yearly basis — particularly impressive given the total population of northwest Arkansas is around half a million.
“I think people in the middle of America have embraced that there is this kind of offering here without having to fly to a coastal location,” said Diane Carroll, chief communications and marketing officer for the museum.
“We get people from both coasts and all sorts of major urban markets, but we also have a really strong attendance from the middle of America.”
Next spring, the museum plans to open a satellite site across Bentonville as well, called The Momentary — with temporary gallery space and room for performing arts.
Mountain biking, regional trails
It’s been described as “the unlikely mountain bike mecca.”
And that it just may be.
Bentonville is a bike-friendly city with miles of singletrack trails, paved pathways and on-road routes for the exploring.
Northwest Arkansas in general has 250 miles of natural-surface trails, making the area a draw for anyone who loves to bike.
On a morning jog down the Razorback Regional Greenway — a 36-mile shared-use trail that connects Bentonville on the north to Fayetteville on the south — I was passed by no less than 50 bicyclists.
That just doesn’t happen on Wichita’s Redbud Trail, where I normally run.
Mountain biking is especially popular in Bentonville, with multiple well-regarded trails in the area.
The Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Park, just north of downtown Bentonville, has attracted outdoors enthusiasts since it was built in 2006.
Many of the hotels in the area allow bikes in rooms, have bike lockers or provide other support to bicyclists. A full list of those hotels is available online at www.bikebentonville.com.
It’s not just that these trails exist — there are lots of things to do along them as well, none quite as unique as James Turrell’s “Skyspace” installation.
Just to the north of the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Bentonville, you’ll find this installation along the Crystal Bridges Trail.
It’s a “naked-eye viewing chamber that allows guests to view the sky through a round oculus in the roof.”
Basically, you can sit inside “Skyspace” and catch an amazing light show created using the sky itself.
Turrell, who creates art with light, has similar installations in San Francisco, Memphis, Tempe, and overseas in England, Switzerland, Norway, Israel and other places.
Dining and drinking
The downtown Bentonville culinary scene is full of flavor these days.
There’s a delicious, laid-back Neapolitan pizzeria (Oven & Tap), a fine-dining restaurant built into a restored Gothic revival church (The Preacher’s Son), a stylish and colorful Latin bistro right off the downtown square (Table Mesa Bistro), and a restaurant filled with quirky sculptures and all locally-sourced dishes (The Hive at 21c).
And that’s just a few of the eclectic dining options in Bentonville.
A short drive over to Rogers is rewarded with funky grilled cheese sandwiches (Hammontree’s Grilled Cheese), an underground “gastrolounge” reminiscent of Wichita’s Public at the Brickyard (Levi’s Gastrolounge & Bar), and some of the finest espresso in the area (Onyx Coffee Lab).
And, of course, the town has its craft-brew options.
How Bentonville became a happening place
The history of Bentonville is closely intertwined with that of Walmart.
The retailer’s founder, Sam Walton, bought a chain of five-and-dime stores in Arkansas and eventually opened one under his own name in 1950, the Walton’s 5 & 10 in downtown Bentonville.
After a decade of success, Walton opened the first official “Walmart” store in nearby Rogers, Ark., in 1962, and quickly expanded in the Midwest and South.
Walton and his family continued to live in Bentonville as Walmart grew its national — and eventually international — presence.
Though Sam Walton died in 1992, many in the Walton family still live in the area and put their considerable financial backing into many of the town’s most exciting developments.
Nearly all of Bentonville’s cultural offerings have some sort of Walmart connection.
Its world-class art museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art? It was founded by Alice Walton, and admission is always free thanks to Walmart underwriting.
Its award-winning children’s museum, the Scott Family Amazeum? It received major donations from former Walmart CEO Lee Scott and the Walton Family Foundation.
The 36-mile regional bike trail connecting much of northwest Arkansas, the Razorback Regional Greenway? The Walton Family Foundation pledged $15 million to support its development.
Even its First Friday series of concerts in the downtown square? They’re sponsored by Walmart, Sam’s Club, and The Walton Family Foundation among others.
The Walton Family Foundation has three main areas of philanthropic focus: K-12 education, environmental conservation, and the “Home Region,” dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in northwest Arkansas.
“It’s part of a broad spectrum of initiatives to make sure that this is one of the best places in America to live and work for everybody — and we believe arts and culture is a really critical component of life,” said Joe Randel, the foundation’s senior program officer for arts and culture.
“It’s not just that it’s present, but it’s present and accessible for everybody.”
Walmart itself employs around 15,000 people in the area — many of which are recruited from all over the United States and the world. Two other major companies are also headquartered in the Bentonville area — Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt.
And, it turns out, those employees from far-flung locales had tastes that differed a bit from what Arkansas had to offer.
It’s made Bentonville a cultural melting pot.
A thriving Indian community in northwest Arkansas (most of which work for Walmart or its suppliers) has grown the sport of cricket in the region — and a 2015 game pitting teams from Walmart and PepsiCo against each other drew coverage from the Wall Street Journal.
“People are coming in from all around the country, and their interests weren’t exactly Arkansas interests,” said John Lee, communications manager for The Walmart Museum. “That’s where the biking comes in, that’s where the restaurants come in, that’s why we do, every Wednesday night, live music on the square.
“Everything is growing. We’re getting quite a bit more diversity of thought and the diversity of people that’s coming in is really great.”
Most of this change in Bentonville has happened comparatively recently.
Now it’s a place where you can find craft breweries, hip restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques — all within biking distance. And those bike trails extend for miles into the Ozark mountains surrounding town.
“The whole area is steeped in more interesting things ... than you might expect coming to northwest Arkansas,” Lee said.
It’s a city of extremes.
On one end of town, you can find field offices for Samsung and Sony, and on the other you can still find cows grazing by the side of the road.
As of now, Bentonville isn’t doing much to promote itself as a regional tourism destination.
It’s trendy yet homey.
It has public art and generally nice people.
It has a booming local economy and plentiful green spaces where people and nature can coexist.
And it’s certainly worth a look for any Wichita traveler wanting to spice up their weekend trip.