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Why Wal-Mart, an icon of suburbia, had to urbanize its hometown

Younger recruits want city-style amenities. With the some corporate help, Bentonville is booming.

The bar at the hippest coffeeshop in town, the Pressroom. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

BENTONVILLE, Ark.— When Jerome Lynch first met a Wal-Mart recruiter at a conference in Washington D.C., he had no intention of joining up. He couldn’t even guess where it was based.

"I said ‘I don’t know, Texas?' She said 'no, Bentonville, Arkansas.' I kind of wrote it off right and there,” recalled Lynch, 23. "The first thing that popped in my mind was cows, and trees, and probably people hiking.” Not something he was used to in his hometown of Miami, where he’d arrived from Jamaica as a toddler. "I was a little nervous from that standpoint,” Lynch said.

Nevertheless, when the retailer offered to bring him out for a nine-month training program last year, Lynch agreed to give it a try. When he got there, Bentonville was … different. Gourmet restaurants ringed a manicured town square, with a world-class modern art museum within walking distance. Food trucks pulled up near bars with craft brews on tap. He even found enough guys to play basketball with on Saturday mornings.

“Totally not what I expected,” Lynch said. Now, as a financial planner in the automotive battery department making $55,000 a year, he’s willing to see where Wal-Mart takes him — even if it means sticking around a town he never would have considered before moving there.

That’s a shift for tiny Bentonville, population 40,000, which has essentially been a company town since Wal-Mart became an international retailing juggernaut in the 1980s. Historically, the company has done alright selling its quiet, family-friendly image to those considering jobs at the supercenter-sized Home Office. The retailer that brought discounts to suburbia had little need for a real downtown core; the square where Sam Walton bought his first five-and-dime stayed sleepy and neglected.

But that strategy isn’t working anymore. Wal-Mart needs to attract the Jerome Lynches of the world, who might not have a car and are not thinking yet about kids, from large cities that have lots more to offer. There are typically more than 1,000 jobs open at the Home Office, and most successful applicants would have to move.

“In order for us to compete for the type of talent it’s going to take to allow these companies to remain competitive in the global economy, we have to be a place where people want to live, where they can spend their free time doing things they enjoy,” said Troy Galloway, Community and Economic Development Director for the City of Bentonville. "There’s a major effort regionally and locally to step up our game.”

Wal-Mart isn’t alone in realizing that location matters when it comes to recruitment.

“Companies are deciding their location a lot based on where they can get access to young professionals, who are of the prime hiring age,” said Chris Zimmerman, a vice president of Smart Growth America, which did a workshop with Bentonville leaders. “It turns out that a lot of them are interested in smaller places, but they want a place where they can walk in."

But Bentonville is smaller and more isolated than most, especially compared to the magnitude of its largest corporate resident — the company has about 28,000 employees in a region with fewer than half a million people. And Wal-Mart has underwritten the town’s transformation in more ways than the casual visitor would notice.

Of course, there’s the billion dollars that Alice Walton put into Crystal Bridges, the palatial museum that has created a tourist economy — and a swank four-star hotel— out of whole cloth since it opened in 2011. There’s the Walmart AMP, a music amphitheater that has consistently drawn acts like Dave Matthews Band since the Waltons bought it in 2011. The Walton name is on the business school at the nearby University of Arkansas, as well as its enormous performing arts center.

The Walton Family Foundation showered its home region with $27 million in grants in 2014. (Besides helping make the area more attractive for new recruits, the philanthropy carries distinct tax advantages for the Waltons and their heirs.)

But the company — and the wealthy family that founded it — is also influential in less obvious ways. Jim Walton is the chairman and CEO of Arvest Bank, which is Arkansas’ largest in terms of deposit market share. Walton Enterprises just redeveloped three acres near the Bentonville town square that will house office space for the Walton Family Foundation, as well as hip restaurants from a hospitality group that members of the Walton family are backing. As the Wal-Mart has worked to figure out urban areas across the country, it’s started at home; a new Walmart Neighborhood Market will serve as downtown’s first large, modern grocery store.

Around the region, Wal-Mart kicks in millions of dollars for road improvements. The burgeoning system of bike trails is funded by grants from the Waltons, as is the city’s master planning process, which has already led to zoning changes that foster denser housing development downtown. The family even fought for residents’ rights to party: Two Walton grandsons heavily financed the successful 2012 campaign to reverse Benton County’s longstanding ban on retail alcohol sales.

“The Walton family takes responsibility for a lot of the issues that we think the community faces,” said Kristin Oliver, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for U.S. human resources. Those investments, in turn, pay dividends when the company takes recruits out for dinner and sends them on tours with local real estate agents.

“That support and structure from Wal-Mart has permeated through the whole town,” said Monica Kumar, who moved to Bentonville from San Francisco and became executive director of a local non-profit called Downtown Bentonville, Inc. after her husband got a job with the company. “It’s like these world class institutions in this amazing small town space.”

On top of all that, there's a third level of largesse that works in more subtle ways. The massive, highly ranked public high school is well supported by the Wal-Mart executives who send their kids there, for example. And Wal-Mart’s suppliers, many of which have offices in Bentonville, can be just as generous — with the retailer’s strict prohibition against its employees accepting gifts, vendors sometimes try to curry favor in other ways.

“In other areas of business, you can go, 'hey I got a pair of tickets to the ball game, will you come with me?’” said Steve Frank, the business development manager at Harrison French Architects, a Bentonville firm that does lots of business with Wal-Mart. “With that kind of policy in place, the supplier community has to show appreciation. I see a lot of philanthropic involvement by them because of that.”

All that activity benefits not just Wal-Mart employees, but anyone else who happens to live there as well. It certainly makes Harrison French’s recruiting efforts easier. Taryn Brown, 25, moved there a year ago for a job as a structural engineer, and feels comfortable in the nest that Wal-Mart has feathered.

“I don’t know if the word is ‘curated,' but it’s very thought out. Whoever is running things here has a plan,” Brown said. “In the back of our heads, we know that all this stuff is here because of Wal-Mart. Even though Wal-Mart’s modest — that’s something they sell — their executives have needs, they want to do certain things with their leisure time, and they make sure it’s here. And that works out for us.”

As a result, Bentonville has become a booming oasis in a part of the country where not much else exists. The city’s population grew 14 percent between 2010 and 2013 — six times the national rate, with surrounding cities close behind. That’s put the region's planners in the position of trying to manage growth, and provide the urban comforts that Wal-Mart’s recruits enjoyed in the places they came from.

“We’ve got people moving here who can’t drive. In Northwest Arkansas, that’s unheard of,” said Mike Harvey, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “But people move here from the big cities, and they want public transportation. They want Uber and Lyft.”

Bentonville hasn’t quite gotten there yet — it’s still hard to find a taxi, never mind an Uber, and public bus service is still a long way away — but the community is working on it.

Still, Harvey recognizes that Northwest Arkansas isn’t San Francisco. It will probably still have the best chance of attracting people from the Midwest — from Minneapolis to Dallas — which is where the Council is planning a social media campaign to raise awareness of what the region has to offer. “We thought it might be good if we aggressively marketed up the middle,” Harvey said. "The coasts are a harder sell."

Ultimately, people still come to Bentonville not for the town itself, but because they got a job offer, and the town was just attractive enough to make it a viable transition. Oliver said the career opportunity tends to be the biggest draw for her recruits.

“People are intrigued by working for a company with such a large geographic footprint,” Oliver said. "The scale of what they will be dealing with is unlike any other. So really what we sell people on is not only is it a nice place to live, but you can really change the world."

Lynch, the 23-year-old financial planner, appreciates that the town is ethnically diverse relative to the rest of Arkansas — as one indication, there are games of cricket in the parks — but the transition has required him to get used to new things.

“The thing is, there’s a lot to do, you just have to adapt to the culture,” he said. Like hiking, which Lynch did with a group from the new church he attends. "I slept in a tent for the first time. I don’t do that. The ground is really hard.”

Oh, and he still misses the live jazz and lounge music he learned to love in Miami — that’s something Wal-Mart can’t conjure on its own. But he’s getting used to the local music instead.

"Sometimes I find myself singing along to country music now,” Lynch said. "It’s not bad. It’s pretty catchy.”