We visited museum after museum, dined with a James Beard-nominated chef and perused arts and culinary collectives — and no, we weren’t in a major U.S. city.
Instead, several Dothan arts, governmental, and business leaders traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, at the request of the Wiregrass Foundation — I also made the journey. Bentonville’s population is significantly lower than Dothan’s — anywhere between 15,000 to 20,000 people, depending on estimates — but somehow manages to make arts an integral part of its tourism package and the quality of life for a growing region.
How? I believe the message the approximately 16 northwest Arkansas-area leaders conveyed to us can be summed up in three C’s: community desire, collaboration and catalyst(s).
» Community desire: Brightwater is a culinary school based at a former Tyson chicken plant. It serves as an extension of Northwest Arkansas Community College, and Executive Director Marshall Shafkowitz said Bentonville-area residents immediately demanded community-based classes when it first opened. Those classes fill up quickly, and long waiting lists form, Shafkowitz said. These traits have translated into other forms of art, not just culinary.
» Collaboration: A collective of more than 10 key city, cultural, and industry leaders meets each Monday for about an hour to discuss their needs, challenges, opportunities, and events. This level of communication has spawned some of the city’s major initiatives and thrown critical support behind other efforts deemed necessary. For example, Bentonville residents passed a millage increase in 2016 with a 70% favorable vote to construct new schools needed to handle a massive influx of students. Bentonville Schools Superintendent Debbie Jones said many students would be attending classes in portable classrooms due had the tax increase failed.
» Catalyst(s): This may be where the collection of communities that form northwest Arkansas shines. Three Fortune 500 companies — Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson — are based here. The Walton Family Foundation created or has supported several of the major arts initiatives in the area, like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which draws more than 600,000 visitors each year. The investment in arts upgrades the quality of life here, which is needed to attract the growing needs of the labor force.
While Bentonville is in many ways similar to Dothan — a moderately sized Southern town — it possesses some significant advantages. Billionaires frequently invest in the community, and the overall annual median household income is some $40,000 higher in Bentonville than in Dothan.
That is why the local leaders must evaluate whether the same successes can occur in the Circle City, and if so, what would it look like? Those are the questions the Wiregrass Foundation has been asking for more than a year as it has conducted some preliminary work even before last week’s trip.
From my perspective, the Dothan area possesses elements of all three C’s that might lead to a major arts investment, however it should manifest.
» Community demand: Dothan already serves as the home of several arts institutions or groups, like the Cultural Arts Center, the Wiregrass Museum of Art, the South Alabama Dance Company, the Southeast Alabama Community Theater, and Patti Rutland Jazz. As the population grows, especially as Dothan becomes even more of a regional retail and medical hub, leaders must anticipate more demand for visual and performing arts.
» Collaboration: For years, governmental officials have trumpeted regionalism in terms of economic growth, and the Abbeville Fiber project serves as an example. That the Wiregrass Foundation has initiated an arts discussion and involved civic, arts and business leaders indicates collaboration has expanded. As long as leaders commit to these discussions and some actions in the future, this will become a stronger element of our community.
» Catalyst(s): On the surface it may look like Dothan is lacking by comparison in this area, but the opening of the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine has already paid dividends for the city’s east side. Digestive Health Specialists recently submitted plans to build its own surgery center near Southeast Health, and Southeast Health officials have long discussed expanding ACOM to include other related practices. The U.S. Highway 84 East Corridor study includes beautiful plans to reconfigure roads downtown that promote pedestrian traffic and art opportunities. It may not be billionaire-related actions, but Dothan possesses some key pieces needed for arts initiatives.
While the trip reflects a major step into determining the direction Dothan leaders may go, more work lies ahead.
The Wiregrass Foundation, which has about $100 million in resources on hand, has contracted with TPG Cos. to develop a plan for submission to the foundation’s board in April. More research regarding similar communities, the market, and the feedback from Dothan officials will be included in the report.
We are not sure what an arts initiative exactly looks like in Dothan at this point, but one thing is clear: City leaders are correct in examining the subject now. If they asked these questions five years into the future, it may be too late to mimic the successes Bentonville has enjoyed in the past eight years.