Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Craft cocktails, mountain bikes and art: Walmart’s hometown is booming, and getting more expensive


How Walmart turned Bentonville, Arkansas into a boomtown

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — When Gil Curren’s family moved into a run-down farmhouse in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, in 1971, the now-retail giant wasn’t yet a decade old. Sometimes, the nearby creek would flood, and cows would break loose onto the dirt road in front of his home.

Now, when the 88-year-old retiree looks outside of his window, he sees new homes instead of cattle. Cyclists, including mountain bikers, whiz by. And when he drives into town, he sees buildings he doesn’t recognize.

“In the last 10, 15 years, it’s just exploded,” he said. “Every time I go to town now, there’s new construction.”

Sue and Gil Curren have seen Bentonville change since moving there from Kansas City in 1971.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

As Walmart tries to hold off Amazon and keep its title of the nation’s largest retailer, the discounter is racing to turn itself into a tech-powered company. Walmart is growing not only by offering groceries and household staples, but also by selling ads and expanding its third-party marketplace.

As the company evolves, its hometown is also changing — and Bentonville now boasts many of the amenities that visitors might expect to see in startup hubs like Austin, Texas, or major cities like New York.

Craft cocktails, hipster coffee shops and chef-driven restaurants have popped up around the city. And a $255-per-month members-only social club has become so popular it has a waiting list.

Walmart has fueled the growth of its hometown, as it attracts talent to the region and tries to turn the area into a more desirable location for workers who could get competing job offers in major U.S. cities or Silicon Valley. At the same time, Bentonville’s evolution has pushed up the cost of housing and more, contributing to the same concerns about affordability and displacement of residents that have plagued other fast-growing cities.

Pedestrians with bicycles at the main downtown square in Bentonville, Arkansas, US, on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

Terra Fondriest | Bloomberg | Getty Images

It’s not just Walmart bringing workers to Bentonville. Fortune 500 companies J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods are also based in northwest Arkansas. And nearly every major Walmart vendor with products sold at the retailer’s thousands of stores, drawn by the benefit of having employees on the ground at any moment, has an office in the area. Those companies include PepsiCo, Hershey, Duracell and Mattel.

More million-dollar homes

Bentonville’s boom has started to change the identity of America’s best-known discounter — and has made Walmart’s backyard a pricier place to live. As newcomers move from other states and cities, the demand for million-dollar homes has shot up, and affordable housing has become harder to find.

Realtor Kristen Boozman, who works for Sotheby’s, helps clients search for homes in the Bentonville area, including many buyers who are relocating from another city.

“Ten years ago, we had 14 homes that sold for over a million dollars,” she said. “Last year, 2023, we had 244.”

Bentonville’s population is younger, wealthier and more highly educated than the rest of the country, according to Census Bureau data. The city’s median age is 32, seven years younger than the rest of the U.S. About 52% of its population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 36% nationally.

Its income levels are much higher, too. Bentonville’s median household income is approximately $99,000 annually. That compares with the $55,432 median household income in Arkansas and $74,755 nationally.

Household incomes have also risen locally. The median household income climbed about 25% from 2017 to 2022, the most recent data available, outpacing gains across the U.S.

For Walmart employees, most of whom work in the company’s stores and warehouses across the U.S., Bentonville would be hard to afford. The median Walmart employee makes an annual salary of $27,642, according to Walmart’s most recent proxy statement.

Managing a boomtown

A mural promoting bicycle travel as a means to ‘arrive happy’ outside a Walmart Home Office location in Bentonville, Arkansas, US, on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. 

Terra Fondriest | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Boosted by Walmart, its vendors and other companies in the area, the population of northwest Arkansas grows by an estimated 36 people each day, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council, which calculated net additions based on births, deaths and relocations. The region, which spans three counties, is expected to grow from its current population of roughly 576,000 people to 1 million people by 2050.

Walmart recently did a survey of new employees who relocated to northwest Arkansas. Walmart’s chief people officer, Donna Morris, said the top selling point of moving to the region was the job. But, she added new employees tend to warm up to Bentonville. The survey found sentiment about the area increases after job candidates visit, and grows more after they move there.

When candidates are considering a move, many come in person to look for homes, tour schools or meet with local leaders, Morris said. The company also sends information about the area and often connects people to other employees who recently moved, she said.

Drawing talent

Affordability issues



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