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.

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

The population of Bentonville shot up from 36,000 in 2010 to 58,000 in 2022, and it’s on track to grow to 200,000 people 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 underway.

Walmart is building a roughly 350-acre new headquarters in Bentonville. It will include a walking and cycling trail, a food hall and a hotel.

Shawn Baldwin | CNBC

But the biggest construction project is Walmart’s new headquarters, which will sprawl across roughly 350 acres. The campus will include biking and walking trails, a food hall, and a range of other amenities. Its new fitness center and daycare opened this spring, and other parts of the campus will open in phases, starting next year.

Even the Walmart Museum is under construction. The museum, located in the first 5 & 10 store that Walmart founder Sam Walton put his name on, is getting renovated to look more modern and include tech-enabled displays like a life-sized hologram of Walton that answers visitors’ questions.

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

Bentonville has attracted tourists and new residents with its many miles of mountain biking trails and its American art museum, Crystal Bridges, which is free to visitors.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

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.

Home values have shot up in the Bentonville area. In some of the city’s neighborhoods, residents now pay $1 million or more for a house.

Shawn Baldwin | CNBC

Managing a boomtown

Brandom Gengelbach, CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the region wants to learn from other boomtowns like Austin and Boise, Idaho, that have run into growth-related problems, 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 get 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 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

Tracy Robinson, 36, lived in New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C. before moving to Arkansas for a job at Walmart. But she said she’s enjoyed the slower pace and big city amenities of Bentonville.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

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 make 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, so she could 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 restaurant and bar scene with dishes — and prices — similar to Miami.

One of Bentonville’s upscale restaurants is Conifer. The gluten-free restaurant is shaped by seasonal ingredients and includes dishes that cost as much as $60.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

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 of 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 up 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 gotten little pushback 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.”

The population of Bentonville has shot up from 36,000 in 2010 to 58,000 in 2022, and it’s on track to grow to 200,000 people by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Shawn Baldwin | CNBC

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 don’t 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, with many earmarked for teachers and other employees of the Bentonville Schools.

The project is expected to be completed in late 2025. It is funded with 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 because of the area’s higher rents and home prices. Some teachers accepted jobs, only to turn them down after looking for a place to live.

“It’s just not affordable is the straight-forward 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 get a balance based on their monthly payments and portion of the home’s equity appreciation, which they can put toward the purchase of 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 worked together in the past, including on a job training program. The Walton Family Foundation is not involved in the Bentonville housing project for teachers.

Bentonville

Shawn Baldwin | CNBC

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 wants 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 Bentonville 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 to see families riding around town on bicycles, after 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.”

— CNBC’s Jodi Gralnick and Shawn Baldwin contributed to this report.

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