February 21, 2018
BENTONVILLE: WHERE BIKES BOOST THE BOTTOM LINE
With a little help from a local retailer called Walmart, this northwest corner of Arkansas is riding the fast-track—via singletrack—to a healthy recreation economy.
“Walking will take you places—but biking will take you farther,” notes Karen Minkel, the Home Region program director for the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Arkansas. She should know: Minkel is responsible for implementing measures designed to improve overall quality of life for people living in northwest Arkansas. Biking—along with the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, a relatively mild climate, and a laid-back, outdoorsy vibe—has been a top attractor for people looking to visit or move to northwest Arkansas. Because if you haven’t figured it out yet, Bentonville is also home to one of the country’s largest employers: Walmart.
While the Walton Family Foundation certainly has a vested interest in attracting—and retaining—high-value employees in the area, the time and money the foundation has invested in the region has had an impact on all people in the area.
When “improved quality of life” translates to more bikes, more trails, and more people on bikes, that’s a great investment for everyone—and the region’s bottom line.
TURNING A TRAIL-BUILDING PROJECT INTO A COMMUNITY-WIDE WIN
Northwest Arkansas is naturally blessed with rugged terrain well-suited to mountain biking. Two mountain ranges run along the state’s western edge: the Ouachitas and the Ozarks. Long-distance point-to-point singletrack trails traverse the state’s rugged boundaries, but the Ozarks provided the greatest inspiration—and acreage—for expansive trail building along the northwestern border. There, hundreds of miles of trails take advantage of the backcountry assets the state has to offer.
And then, of course, there’s the $59 million dollar investment from the Walton Family Foundation. From 2000 to 2016, the foundation invested $13 million in mountain-biking trails, and an additional $46 million in paved multipurpose trails. A good portion of those funds were tied to grants designed to leverage matching funds, making the effort truly a community-wide endeavor.
That kind of cross-community engagement is what makes projects like this work, notes Paxton Roberts, executive director of BikeNWA, a bike-advocacy group based in Bentonville.
“We wouldn’t have the kind of trails we have here without the Waltons—and their investment in the home region has been a great catalyzer to get other people involved,” Roberts says. “Those kinds of public-private partnerships have resulted in projects that have really sparked the revitalization of downtown areas.”
“Biking infrastructure is an economic driver—not just for tourism, but also as it affects where people choose to live. People want to live right on the trail, and they see value in having a walkable, bikeable community.”
He credits one such project—the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile trail that connects Bentonville and Bella Vista to Fayetteville via the communities of Rogers, Springdale and Lowell—for the brew pubs, restaurants, real-estate developments, and jobs that have popped up along that corridor over the past decade.
“Tyson Foods decided to renovate a location in downtown Springdale, bringing 300 white-collar jobs back to a downtown that used to be nothing but boarded-up buildings,” Roberts says. “Biking infrastructure is an economic driver—not just for tourism, but also as it affects where people choose to live. People want to live right on the trail, and they see value in having a walkable, bikeable community.”
IF YOU BUILD IT, TOURISTS WILL COME (AND THEY DID)
While a small—but passionate—group of cyclists had already carved out some turns and berms in the Bentonville area, the Walton Family Foundation kicked off the newest burst of trail-building in 2006 with a gift of land now known as Slaughter Pen.
The Slaughter Pen trails started with just five miles’ worth of singletrack; the area now offers up 27 miles of bermed flow, mixed up with some tabletops, ladder bridges, and wooden walls. Connect the Slaughter Pen trails to the nearby Blowing Springs trail system in Bella Vista via a paved bike path for a popular 23-mile route that winds through hardwood forest over rocky overhangs, ledges, and a hanging bridge. Ask anyone who’s ridden the trail systems in the area, and they’ll tell you the silver-level designation awarded to Bentonville trails by the International Mountain Biking Association was well-deserved—as was the bronze designation Fayetteville picked up.
Today, more than 200 miles of bike paths crisscross the northwest Arkansas region, making it one of the best places in the country to ride a mountain bike—or any type of bike, as paved multi-purpose trails connect the singletrack loops around town, granting access to all types of riders. And guess what? The Walton Family Foundation was right: If you build it, they will come.
In fact, people started coming in droves. Bike-driven tourism started taking off, making an impact on the region’s hotels, restaurants, and small businesses.
“Nine years ago you wouldn’t have seen people go into a restaurant dressed in full cycling kit—but since you can now ride right into the downtown area from the trails, you see it all the time,” says Kalene Griffith, president of the Bentonville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Now we cater to it, with places like the Bike Rack Brewing Company, Pedaler’s Pub, bike-friendly hotels, and bike racks outside the doors of restaurants.”
And then in 2016, Bentonville hosted the IMBA World Summit, welcoming around 600 cyclists to town and further helping get the word out about its top-quality trails. Still, the focus is broader than mountain biking, says Griffith. “This year alone we hosted nine cycling events, from road races, to singletrack, to cyclocross, to a fun trail ride on the Greenway. We’ve been really focused on recruiting cyclists of all types to the area.”
It’s working; over a half-million cyclists now ride the region’s trail systems annually. To put that in perspective, Northwest Arkansas now hosts almost as many daily cyclists per capita as San Francisco. And it’s not just tourists; according to a quality-of-life survey conducted by the Walton Family Foundation, around 84 percent of people in Bentonville are actively using its trails—and many of those users are locals.
TRAIL-BUILDING IS GOOD FOR LOCALS
If positive press and bike-filled getaway weekends draw in the tourists, then a concentrated, well-honed strategy can lure in new residents. Just last year, the Walton Family Foundation invested more than $48 million in what it terms its “home region initiatives.” These initiatives represent the foundation’s commitment to improving educational outcomes, supporting arts and culture, coordinating regional development, and preserving a sense of place. All are part of the 2020 Home Region Plan, but trail-building falls under the last initiative, according to Luis Gonzalez, senior communications officer with the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region office.
“Northwest Arkansas has doubled in population over the past 35 years,” he says. “The idea behind the ‘sense of place’ initiative is to ensure that cities are developed in a way that’s true to that place’s existing fabric.”
“This region has always been known for its natural beauty. Building natural-surface trails—mountain-bike trails—helps us preserve green spaces in a way that still gives people access to them.”
Paved multi-use trails also fit into the broader strategy of creating a sense of place. According to Minkel, trail-building used to be considered part of the arts and culture-building initiative. “Over time, that viewpoint has shifted within the foundation and the region at large, to where trails aren’t simply considered an amenity, but a fundamental part of our transportation network,” she says.
“Mountain biking is tied to preserving natural assets; the multi-use trail network provides access to those beautiful green spaces.”
And by “access,” Minkel means that you can be in the downtown area of Bentonville and access fantastic singletrack within a quarter-mile pedal. It takes less than 10 minutes to pedal from Bentonville to the Slaughter Pen trail system—and that “commute” from city to trail is entirely via the Razorback Regional Greenway.
The allure of two-wheeled transport is working; in a recent focus-group study of young professionals conducted by Minkel’s office last year, the trail network came up as a major benefit again and again, whether people were using the network to commute or for recreation.
“The trails are clearly helping to attract people to Bentonville—but they’re also key for retention,” Minkel says. “Both natural-surface and paved trails work together to help the region grow and develop in a positive way. It’s just two sides of the same coin.”
The investment the Walton Family Foundation has made in its hometown is monumental—and its forward-thinking initiatives may even pave the way for other cities hoping to use trail-building to attract top talent. The original 1950-era five-and-dime store that spawned a multibillion-dollar company may be the Walmart Museum now, but there’s nothing quaint about Walmart’s headquarters, nor its determination to make the region a great place to live.
It doesn’t hurt that Steuart and Tom Walton—grandsons of founder Sam Walton—have a shared passion for mountain biking, and are as likely to be spotted trailside as they are in the boardroom. Need proof? Check Strava. Chances are, the Walton brothers are logging more miles than you are.