City leaders tour Bentonville

JEREMY WISE/DOTHAN EAGLE Visit Bentonville CEO/President Kalene Griffith (left center) discusses Tuesday's itinerary with Dothan-area city, business and arts leaders while in a museum in the Arkansas city.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — As Dothan grows economically and in population, area leaders traveled here Tuesday to assess how art can have a positive impact on economic development and quality of life.

Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba, Dothan City Manager Kevin Cowper, Houston County District 4 Commissioner Brandon Shoupe and several arts and business leaders battled rainy takeoffs and bitter temperatures to tour a city that has experienced exponential growth in recent years. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Bentonville’s population topped 51,000 last year, a 46% increase from the 2010 Census that recorded the city’s population at just more than 35,000.

Several Bentonville leaders indicated an effort on the arts has helped spur the community’s growth, including the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“Bentonville is an arts mecca for the Midwest,” said County Judge Barry Moehring, whose position acts more like a county administrator than as a judicial position. “Twenty years ago, arts was nothing. Crystal Bridges was a nuclear bomb.”

Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, funded the creation of the museum, which includes the Bachman-Wilson House created by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The museum pairs with the development of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 37-mile biking trail connecting several communities in the area, to provide a heavy tourism draw, according to Kalene Griffith, CEO/president of Visit Bentonville.

But the arts play a much more significant role than just tourism in Bentonville, said Graham Cobb, Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce executive director. He said an arts element is included in all chamber events in an effort to build the community’s quality of life, which in turn lures businesses and top talent to fuel the local economy.

The talent is needed to supply workers to Walmart and the hundreds of suppliers that have located here because of the nation’s top retailer.

“We had to be very proactive to attract the talent,” Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman said. “We have a really impressive entrepreneurial spirit here that is more open to public art.”

Bentonville has reaped the benefits, as the median household income is about $83,000 and 73% of Bentonville’s workforce possesses white-collar jobs, Orman noted. For comparison, Dothan’s median household income is $43,316, according to a 2018 census assessment.

For the city of Bentonville’s part in the arts initiatives, it offers various public spaces — like parks or street corners — for arts projects. A public arts committee assesses all proposals, which must gain support of the arts committee and the Bentonville City Council.

The Wiregrass Foundation, a nonprofit that funds several projects in the Dothan area, organized the trip. Executive Director Dr. Barbara Alford said the fact-finding effort seeks to determine how arts has impacted the northwest Arkansas region and what lessons or projects are transferrable to Dothan — including possible building efforts.

“We’re not sure where it’s gonna take us or where it can take us,” she said.

The trip continues through Thursday, with visits to the Fayetteville area planned.

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