|Downtown Bentonville, Ark., at the intersection of North Main Street and West Central Ave.
Credit: Beth Hall for The New York Times
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — It makes sense that the fate of this quintessential company town is being plotted in a conference room just a mile from Walmart headquarters. But what Trevor Drinkwater and his lieutenants are plotting is cultural, artistic and urban. In other words, something less stereotypically Walmart.
Along with the actress Geena Davis, Mr. Drinkwater is founder of the nascent but ambitious Bentonville Film Festival, running May 5-9, which hopes to build on the city’s recent and surprising development boom.
Cranes are cutting up the skylines, and real estate prices are headed in the same direction. Earlier this year, the northwest Arkansas metro population, which also includes Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and other towns, passed the half-million mark.
In Bentonville alone, the population jumped 14 percent to more than 40,000 between 2010 and 2013. The rest of the state straggled along at 1.5 percent.
Tourists are rushing in, too. About 1.6 million have visited the lavishly Walton-financed and mostly free Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art since it opened in 2011. Last year, visitors came from 30 countries to view a collection reputed to be worth at least a half-billion dollars.
Laura Brown, owner of Ramo D’Olivo, a wine bar and olive oil store in Bentonville.
Credit: Beth Hall for The New York Times
“It’s a perfect location, a great American town,” said Mr. Drinkwater, a former Warner Bros. vendor to Walmart. “I’ve been coming here for over 20 years, and the changes over that time are nothing short of spectacular.”
For the legions of vendors who visit and work in Bentonville and neighboring Rogers, serving Walmart had been a major arena for those fighting through the corporate trenches. Despite good salaries, a tour of duty in rural northwest Arkansas was a dismal assignment.
Most cycled in for only a few years, vying for Walmart shelf space for products alongside some 1,400 other companies represented here. Adding to the struggle for many: Benton County was dry until 2012.
Laura Brown moved to Bentonville from San Diego in 1999, when her then-husband took a job with Sam’s Club. “I probably cried for three years,” she said.
She failed to mesh with locals and recalls two restaurants, a forsaken town square and “no shopping whatsoever, except for Walmart.”
As a local developer put it, “You could have fired a gun downtown and not hit anyone.”
Since then, Bentonville has grown up, and filled in.
Now divorced, Ms. Brown and her new fiancé, Tom Gheen, own Ramo d’Olivo, an upscale organic olive oil and vinegar boutique with a wine bar in back.
Her business sits in a cluster of new storefronts, swarming with pedestrian traffic on quaint, re-bricked sidewalks. Nearby is a gourmet tea shop, a niche paper store, new restaurants that feature such artisanal Ozark fare as grass-fed beef and gourmet goat testicles, chic apartments and the elegant21c Museum Hotel, which TripAdvisor ranks as the seventh-best hotel in the country.
The old lumberyard south of the square has been re-appropriated as a craft beer destination, the Bike Rack Brewery. It’s an homage to the area’s trail system, which includes the new Razorback Regional Greenway, supported by the Walton Family Foundation and connecting six cities in northwest Arkansas.
Developers and local and regional planners say this is just the beginning. “If we’re going to recruit and retain the talent we need to compete economically, we had to change our approach,” said Troy Galloway, the city’s economic development director.
That approach — fostering growth through cultural and recreational amenities — has been supported by the local big three, Walmart, Tyson Foods and J. B. Hunt Transport Services.
Walton Enterprises is opening the biggest structures yet on the square, the two-building, three-story Midtown Center, which consumes almost three acres and will offer more than 50,000 square feet of office and retail space – expanding the downtown’s work force and economy.
The Meteor Guitar Gallery in Bentonville; the store used to be the home of the town’s movie theater. CreditBeth Hall for The New York Times
In adjoining Rogers, Hunt Ventures will open the doors this fall to the tallest building in town, the 10-story Hunt Tower, which brings 900,000 square feet of class-A office space to town. That’s in addition to the million square feet it’s already built in the last 14 years.
“It’s directly related to demand,” said John George, executive vice president of Hunt Ventures. “There are a lot more potential tenants coming into the market looking for a bigger footprint.”
Real estate prices are following suit. A commercial building on the Bentonville square occupied by a venture capital firm sold in late 2014 for $950,000, a 73 percent increase since its last sale in 2011. The price of another jumped 63 percent.
The growth hasn’t been great for everyone. Leslie Key, the owner of a new guitar shop and music venue called The Meteor, complained of backlogged construction permits, and some shops, like The Mustache, a clothing store, have already been priced out. Ms. Brown had to rent space for Ramo d’Olivo when she found she couldn’t afford to buy.
At the same time, developers and community leaders say the area still has work to do. Poverty remains a problem, as does developing a skilled work force. Plus, the old images of Arkansas as rural and boring persist, and in some ways, still hold true.
“Bentonville needs life after 10 p.m.,” said Mike Abb, the creative director of Rope Swing Group, a property management and hospitality firm based in Bentonville. “The amount of energy and talent we’re recruiting here literally demands a nightlife and an interaction zone.”
A proposed market district may help solve that problem. Planned to occupy 25 acres of land southeast of the downtown square, the market district is set to overhaul an old industrial zone into a major-mixed use development with a focus on food, arts and entertainment.
The anchor is a culinary arts school that will back up against the Razorback Regional Greenway.
The school would train chefs and hospitality workers for the fast-growing area. “There is a huge demand to grow the services to run this type of community,” said Paul Esterer, the executive managing director for Newmark Grubb Arkansas, one of the project’s developers. “There are no workers. Where do you get the sous chefs?”
Mr. Drinkwater and his team organizing the film festival have yet another problem: Bentonville still has no movie theater. Mr. Drinkwater is making do by outfitting churches, meeting rooms, conference rooms and even the downtown square to screen festival entries.
Despite that technical difficulty, Mr. Drinkwater, an independent film distributor, believes Bentonville is ready to host a major film festival, which he expects to grow each year. If nothing else, he has the corporate sponsors.
AMC Theatres, Coca-Cola and Walmart have joined to offer distribution on limited AMC screens and via Walmart to the winners. The festival, through its partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, is open exclusively to female and minority filmmakers, with the aim of igniting careers.
Robert DeNiro, Rosie O’Donnell, Soledad O’Brien and other A-listers are said to be attending.
Ms. Davis has visited Bentonville several times in advance of the festival, strolling the square and staying in the 21c Museum Hotel.
“The town has attracted a lot of talent — New York and Hollywood — because they have products sold at Walmart. It’s not like it’s a new thing,” Mr. Drinkwater said. “What I hope it does for Bentonville is expose it as one of the great American towns and help support its ambitions.”