Bentonville immediately comes to mind as the headquarters and launching pad for the global retail giant Walmart. And it is that. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer in fact, and its growth has lured vendors from across the U.S. to this Rockwellian corner of northwest Arkansas that Bentonville calls home.
With a growth rate of fifty-six percent since 2000, thanks in part to a large infusion of transplants pleasantly surprised by what they find, Bentonville has been called a big city wearing a small town mask: part Norman Rockwell, part Andy Warhol—yes, Warhol—and more than anything, a treasure chest of pure Americana waiting patiently for those destination buffs seeking travel fortune off the beaten path.
And off the traditional beaten path it is, though northwest Arkansas is emerging as a noted hotspot for tourism and business. Thanks in part to its Walmart roots, Bentonville itself has established a thriving tech startup scene, and tourism is off the charts thanks to the opening of the renowned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which in turn has attracted upscale hotels, shops, and restaurants feeding off the city’s new energy.
Warhol, the iconic pop artist, is on display at the museum, which drew more than 650,000 visitors from across the globe in its first year after opening in the fall of 2011. And Warhol can be felt beyond the museum’s modern glass walls.
Downtown, contemporary chic meets farmer’s market and the result is a vibe truly unique to Bentonville. Modern architecture overlooks a traditional downtown square that jumps off the canvas of Rockwell, the famed mid-twentieth-century artist whose work graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for decades. Walton’s 5 &10, the five-and-dime store that represented Sam Walton’s first foray into northwest Arkansas and was the precursor of what would become Walmart, crowns the square and serves as the popular Walmart Museum.
Bentonville’s cultural amenities, the upscale dining, its award-winning schools, trails, canopied streets, and strong entrepreneurial spirit—all of it contributed to the Washington Post’s placing this under-the-radar hamlet of 35,000 on its “In” list. Southern Living even pondered whether Bentonville could be the South’s next “cultural mecca.”
And with more than 2,100 hotel rooms and 138 restaurants as of 2013, small-town Bentonville has the infrastructure to accommodate tourists, business travelers, and even the A-list celebrities who visit on occasion. Random Saturday nights in Bentonville have included sightings of celebs like Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Drew Barrymore, and even basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in town to visit the museum or work Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting in neighboring Fayetteville.
The ingredients that make up Bentonville are simple: Start with a generous helping of Main Street, of both the Southern and Midwestern varieties, toss in a little art deco ambience, and add a pleasing temperate climate coupled with the beauty of the Ozark plateau. And voila—you have the engaging smorgasbord that is Bentonville.
The “beaten path” is headed Bentonville’s way, but the city remains entrenched in that coveted sweet spot occupied by “it” places still undiscovered by the masses. The sweet spot awaits.