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Walmart’s Town: Rising Costs and Rapid Growth

Walmart’s Town Rising Costs and Rapid Growth

Bentonville, Arkansas – In 1971, Gil Curren’s family moved into a run-down house in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. At that time, the retail giant was just under a decade old. Often, the nearby creek would flood, and cows would wander onto the dirt road in front of his house.

Now, when the 88-year-old retiree looks out his windows, he sees new homes instead of cattle. Cyclists, including mountain biking enthusiasts, zip by. And when he drives into town, he encounters buildings he doesn’t recognize.

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

As Walmart strives to fend off Amazon and maintain its status as the nation’s largest retailer, it is transforming into a tech-powered company. Walmart is expanding not only by selling groceries and household items but also by offering advertisements and growing its third-party marketplace.

As the company evolves, so does its hometown. Bentonville now boasts many amenities typical of startup hubs like Austin, Texas, or major cities like New York.

Craft breweries, trendy coffee shops, and upscale cafes have emerged in the area. A $255-per-month members-only social club has become so popular that it has a waiting list.

Walmart has driven the growth of its hometown, attracting talent and transforming the area into a more appealing location for workers who might receive job offers from major U.S. cities or Silicon Valley. However, Bentonville’s evolution has driven up the cost of housing and more, raising concerns about affordability and displacement of residents, similar to other rapidly growing cities.

It’s not just Walmart bringing workers to Bentonville. Fortune 500 companies J.B. Hunt and Tyson Foods are also based in northwest Arkansas. Nearly every major Walmart vendor that supplies goods to its thousands of stores has a presence there, benefiting from the convenience of having workers on the ground. These companies include PepsiCo, Hershey, Duracell, and Mattel.

More Million-Dollar Homes

Bentonville’s population surged from 36,000 in 2010 to 58,000 in 2022, and it is projected to reach 200,000 by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town has more cranes per capita than any other U.S. city, according to Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners. More restaurants, new hotels, and a medical school are all in the works.

The largest construction project is Walmart’s new headquarters, which will span approximately 350 acres. The campus will feature biking and walking trails, a food hall, and various other amenities. A new fitness center and daycare opened this spring, with other parts of the campus set to open in phases starting next year.

Even the Walmart Museum is under renovation. Located in the first 5-and-10 store where Walmart founder Sam Walton began, the museum is being updated to include tech-enabled displays, such as a life-sized hologram of Walton that responds to visitors’ questions.

Walton’s family continues to shape the town as it grows. His grandsons, Steuart and Tom Walton, have helped bring mountain bike trails to the area, turning Bentonville into a destination for the sport. They also back a real estate firm and a hospitality group that has opened high-end restaurants and built apartment complexes. Sam Walton’s daughter, Alice Walton, founded Crystal Bridges, an American art museum that is free to visitors. She is now opening a medical school in Bentonville that plans to enroll its first class of future doctors next year.

Bentonville’s boom has begun to change the identity of America’s best-known discounter, making Walmart’s backyard a pricier place to live. As newcomers arrive from other states and cities, demand for million-dollar homes has soared, making affordable housing harder to find.

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

“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 national average, according to Census Bureau data. The city’s median age is 32, seven years younger than the U.S. average. About 52% of its population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 36% nationally.

Income levels are much higher, too. Bentonville’s median household income is approximately $99,000 annually, compared 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

Brandom Gengelbach, CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the region aims to learn from other boomtowns like Austin and Boise, Idaho, which have faced growth-related issues like traffic and pricing out longtime residents. He previously worked for a chamber in another fast-growing region, Dallas-Fort Worth.

“There’s always going to be unintended consequences of growth,” he said. But he added, “what this has been able to bring to people’s property values, what it brings in terms of amenities, the education system we have here. It’s far beyond any of the negatives.”

The small town, which Sam Walton put on the map, will soon see another wave of newcomers: Walmart announced last month that it would be transferring corporate employees from Dallas, Atlanta, and Toronto to Bentonville or other corporate hubs on the coasts.

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 to 1 million by 2050.

Walmart recently conducted 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. However, she added that new employees tend to warm up to Bentonville. The survey found that sentiment about the area improves after job candidates visit and grows even more after they move there.

When candidates are considering a move, many visit 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 added.

Drawing Talent

Tracy Robinson never imagined she’d live in Arkansas. The 36-year-old lived in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Miami before moving to Bentonville for a job at Walmart. She leads a team that coordinates with manufacturers that produce baby products for Walmart’s private-label brands.

Robinson had never set foot in Bentonville before she moved there about two years ago. She said she expected to stay for a year to add Walmart to her resume.

But once she arrived, she enjoyed the town’s slower pace and its big-city amenities. Her dog, Stanley, also settled in quickly, sporting a bow tie as he chased squirrels and went on long walks in the sculpture garden outside of Crystal Bridges.

Robinson was also surprised to find a vibrant restaurant and bar scene with dishes and prices similar to Miami.

One of those restaurants is led by chef Matthew Cooper. He helped jump-start Bentonville’s upscale food scene as the executive chef of The Preacher’s Son, a restaurant off Bentonville’s downtown square in a converted former church. The restaurant, which has a speakeasy in its basement, is owned by Ropeswing Hospitality Group, founded by Sam Walton’s grandsons, Tom and Steuart.

Now, Cooper has a restaurant of his own, Conifer, which serves dishes like buffalo mushrooms with Gorgonzola mousse and lamb meatballs with wild rice, carrot, pistachio pesto, and goat cheese. On the recent seasonal menu, entrees cost as much as $60.

But Cooper said he’s encountered little resistance to the prices from business travelers and local residents.

“They were from places where those prices were already prevalent,” he said. “So it really hasn’t been that much of a fight.”

Affordability Issues

For Conifer’s restaurant workers, though, living in town has become a challenge as rent and real estate costs climb. Cooper said he strives to offer competitive wages and benefits, but most employees do not live in Bentonville. Many commute from cheaper parts of the region and some have roommates.

High housing costs inspired a unique project that will soon rise in Bentonville: a roughly $35 million development with a mix of 120 apartments and 40 single-family homes, many earmarked for teachers and other employees of Bentonville Schools.

The project is expected to be completed in late 2025. It is funded by a mix of donations and federal and state money and overseen by the Excellerate Foundation, a local nonprofit.

The project was inspired by the public school district’s struggles to hire and retain teachers due to the area’s higher rents and home prices. Some teachers accepted jobs only to turn them down after searching for a place to live.

“It’s just not affordable is the straightforward bottom line, especially when you’re talking about people that are in a serving industry, be it community service, staff of the cities or people that are firefighters, police officers, teachers,” Excellerate Foundation CEO Jeff Webster said.

Teachers and other school district employees who move into the development will pay $1,500 per month for their homes. When they depart, they will receive a balance based on their monthly payments and a portion of the home’s equity appreciation, which they can use toward purchasing a permanent home.

A Walmart spokeswoman said the Walton Family Foundation funds and advocates for affordable housing projects in the Bentonville area. Excellerate and the Walton Family Foundation have also collaborated in the past, including on a job training program. The Walton Family Foundation is not involved in the Bentonville housing project for teachers.

As the city prepares for more growth, Webster led a task force for the Bentonville City Council that researched affordable housing. He interviewed people from other booming cities. By planning ahead, Webster said, Bentonville aims to incentivize developers to build housing with a mix of price points and avoid urban sprawl.

Curren, who has lived in Bentonville since 1971, said the town has already begun to resemble cities like Austin or Houston. Traffic is noticeably heavier now. He misses the days when he knew nearly everyone in town.

“We can go to the Walmart store and not meet one person that we know in there,” he said.

But Curren likes seeing families riding around town on bicycles, thanks to the proliferation of hundreds of miles of cycling paths in northwest Arkansas. He and his wife, Sue, recently took a tour of downtown Bentonville to learn more about the new buildings, restaurants, and shops.

“We still have a really great lifestyle here,” Curren said. “And I would recommend that to anyone. But don’t tell them: I don’t want anyone else moving here.”