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We Need to Talk About Walmart

While I loved my time in Rogers and will surely head back over there frequently when I move to northwest Arkansas, Bentonville is the way to go for me.

You probably only know Bentonville as the world headquarters of Walmart, and therefore will have a bad association, so let's get some things out of the way. No, I am not a fan of Walmart. They don't pay the majority of their employees enough to survive without government subsidies, which means that, whether you shop there or not, you as a taxpayer are supporting Walmart. They also have terrible scheduling practices designed to avoid paying benefits and that make life very difficult for people with families or who might need more than one job, though these practices seem to be improving.

However, I'm not blind to the fact that America has created a society where Walmart is necessary. Walmart is far, far from the only corporation to pay such low wages that its employees can only afford to shop at places like Walmart. I think it was disgusting the way people in Boulder celebrated the failure of Walmart in the community. People like that have a total lack of awareness of how most people live in this country. 

I also think people who shop on Amazon yet simultaneously detest Walmart haven't really thought through their opinion very carefully. They should think a bit harder about the influx of cheap crap from China via Amazon and how it's destroyed local businesses, as well as how Amazon treats warehouse employees and delivery drivers

So, with that out of the way, my thoughts on the Waltons and Bentonville are, if you can't beat them, join them! The Waltons have put a ton of investment into Bentonville and made it an absolutely fabulous place to live. Look at these community investment numbers (in all northwest Arkansas, not just Bentonville) from 2014 alone. Many of the community amenities are free, and for others that you can't afford, you can often apply to the Walton Foundation to get help paying for entry fees. The foundation is also funding the Life Works Here initiative to bring remote workers to the area. In the first year of the program, there were 26,000 applicants for just 25 spots. I applied last year too, but sadly wasn't chosen. 

The Walton grandchildren get it. They know what makes cities popular and they've put a lot of design and thought into making Bentonville desirable. The population has increased from 35,000 in 2010 to 50,000 in 2018. That's 43% growth in less than a decade. And I'm sold too, even without the remote worker incentive. I started looking at properties while I was there the past six weeks and I'm anticipating becoming a full-time resident in 2023. 

So what do I love about it?

Crystal Bridges and The Momentary

The $1.2 billon dollar Crystal Bridges museum and its sister space, The Momentary, are incredible. They feature progressive exhibitions from local and international artists, and they provide public space to simply enjoy. I spent a lot of time at the enormous indoor café and roaming the outdoor gardens. The gardens at Crystal Bridges connect to Compton Gardens which connect to the main Bentonville downtown square and the 38-mile long Razorback Greenway paved path runs through all of them, so you can walk or bike in from lots of different locations. All the signage is bilingual, as is a lot of other signage and newspapers and services throughout Benton County, which by 2021 numbers is 18 percent Hispanic.

The main rotating exhibitions in both museums are free, but they also have excellent paid special events. Both Hilary Clinton and Yo Yo Ma spoke while I was there (of course, tickets had long since been sold out). The Momentary hosts unusual and edgy concerts, like Saddonna, and all of them are quite affordable. 

I especially enjoyed these two exhibitions:

Listening Forest - A paid, outdoor exhibition that uses light, sound, and projections to create an interactive walk through the woods. This site-specific exhibition brings together eight immersive installations, each one activated by you: your heart rate, your body, your voice, and your movements direct the forest’s response. This project brings together art and technology in a natural setting to create poetic, shared experiences.


Architecture at Home - A free outdoor exhibition intended to spark a dialogue about the problems of housing insecurity, sustainability, or access to attainable housing...and inspire greater awareness of what is possible for housing through research and experimental design. 


Trails

Bentonville is full of runners, and the Razorback Greenway paved path runs 38 miles from Bentonville to Fayetteville with dozens and dozens of offshoot pathways. I’m sure you could run over 100 miles without covering the same ground twice. A few spots of the trail are broken up due to construction, but hopefully those will be restored soon. There are lots of different trailheads and plenty of clean, functioning public restrooms along the path. 

I mention the restroom thing because I'm used to places like Denver where they've had to close public restrooms because of problems with drug addicts and homeless occupying them, and when they are open, you wouldn't want to use them anyway because they are gross and scary. It's nice to be somewhere that you can actually use the public amenities.

Bentonville is also full of beautifully groomed mountain bike trails, like Slaughter Pen, which are open to hikers and runners too. I don't know how the city has managed it logistically, but these urban trails wind through neighborhoods and along backyards for miles and miles and miles, yet you almost never have to cross a street. They are an integral part of the city design and it's super cool how easy it is to just start running from so many different locations.

Writers Communities and Book Clubs

In my short time there, I found so many book clubs and writing meetups. These are not all strictly in Bentonville, but they are all accessible with a not-too-far drive. Some resources to check out if you are bookish like me:

Book Clubs

Meetup.com writing groups

  • Shut Up & Write! Bentonville
  • Shut Up & Write! Springdale
  • Scribblers and Scribes of Rogers (they also meet in Bella Vista)

Plus I was there for NaNoWriMo and quickly got tapped into writers that way through events that the local municipal liaison arranged. There's just a large community here that's into reading and writing, which makes it a great place for me.

Tech Scene and People

I mentioned the Life Works Here program that brings remote workers to the area. Remote workers tend to be largely in tech, and there is a good tech scene in northwest Arkansas. NWA Tech Fest hosts monthly meetups in Lowell (a little south of Bentonville) and it's a good crew. I went to one at Goat Lab Brewery and really enjoyed the people and conversation. It's different than what you find in places better known for their tech scenes - I think I was the only one working for a Silicon Valley company. Everyone seemed to work for startups or completely non-tech companies. But all companies need tech workers, regardless of what their core business is. 

The area is on the wealthier side. The median household income in Bentonville is $84,000, compared to $71,000 in the United States as a whole, but there's a lack of pretension. You don't get the snobbery in restaurants and coffee shops and bars that you find elsewhere. You don't feel like people are out to be seen.

People here do get married and pop out a bunch of kids at a young age. I met quite a few people not much older than me who already had grandchildren, so be prepared for that. It's still very southern and religious in that way. But with all the tech workers and other people moving into the area, the demographics are changing and there are always new people looking to meet people to go do fun stuff with and build up a friend group. It's not like other more conservative and traditional areas of the country where people have their friends they've had since preschool and don't want to talk to anyone else (I'm looking at you, Winston-Salem). 

Finally, Arkansas is obviously a red state, but northwest Arkansas has a growing liberal contingent. In 2016, 29 percent of Benton county voted Democrat and in 2020, that number had grown to 35 percent. In Washington county just south - where Fayetteville and the university are located - 46 percent voted Democrat in 2020. So it's a healthy mix of viewpoints and opinions, and from my experience, people are just nice to each other and tolerant of differences. 

Conclusions and Next Steps

If your impression of Arkansas is banjos and rednecks, you need to think again. Or, on second thought, keeping thinking that and stay away. There are a few signs that infrastructure is having a hard time keeping up with the growth, traffic especially. Still, you never get the sea of brake lights and stop-and-go traffic you find in more populated places.

The upside of continued population growth would be more flight options. This is the one big downside to Bentonville - the small, regional airport. Flying internationally is going to be a challenge. But honestly, I like it so much that I'm willing to deal with it. I can build in to my plans the drive to Kansas City or Memphis or Saint Louis or Dallas or wherever I need to go to get a good international flight.

I do still have nomad plans for almost all 2023. You'll see me popping up domestically in Santa Fe, Lexington, Rapid City, and elsewhere. You'll see me internationally on the beach in the Dominican Republic, scaling more Andean peaks in Chile, and running across Japan. But by the end of the year, I anticipate you'll also find me with a new permanent address in NWA and sporting a Go Hogs! t-shirt. 




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