BENTONVILLE— Downtown Bentonville is growing and anyone who has visited the city square in the last five months has undoubtedly noticed.
Much of that growth is attributed to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is transforming the city’s once business-like square into a cultural art experience in itself.
Since the museum's opening, more than 223,000 guests have visited according to Crystal Bridges spokeswoman, Amber Hendrickson.
Bentonville business owners say many of those visitors found their way to the city square, providing steady traffic for new restaurants and shops.
More than six restaurants, four shops and an art gallery now call downtown Bentonville home, with the promise of more venues to come.
The sight of the square today is a sharp contrast to what it was just a few years ago when The Station Cafe was one of the only restaurants opened downtown, Cecil Turner said.
Turner, owner of The Station Cafe, said the burger restaurant is on track to have its best year yet, because of the extra visitors brought in by the museum and the new restaurant openings.
"I'm just glad to have people lined outside the door," Turner said, noting that he has seen the largest increase in the number of visitors to The Station during the evening shift.
That's because the square is rapidly becoming a destination for anyone looking for an evening out, said Daniel Hintz, executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc.
Hintz said not long ago it took an event to bring people downtown. Now the downtown square has become a destination of choice on its own.
There has been an upswing in the number of people who are choosing to spend their evenings and weekends downtown, he said. The trails nearby invite bike and walking enthusiasts and a growing mix of restaurants now provide great food options for families and people of all ages, according to Hintz.
He said for too long, the square was active during the day with working professionals, but offered little for evening entertainment.
"Come downtown on a Wednesday or Thursday night and there are people in the restaurants," Hintz said. "The places are packed. You come downtown on a Saturday and the place is packed and all of this is happening without events."
Hintz sees the downtown experience as an extension of the arts with an eclectic mix of culinary experiences, music and history.
The 1% sales tax collected by the city also bears proof of increased traffic downtown and around Bentonville. So far in 2012, the city has reported sales tax collections totaling $1.903 million, up 45.66% from the prior-year.
The collections reported in March totaled $$893,281, an increase of 53.3% over March 2011.
Stephanie Lebouff, owner of Paisley Place on the square opened in April 2011. She said there has been an increase in not only visitors to her shop but also in people purchasing art since Crystal Bridges opened.
"At first we didn't really sell a lot of art but now we are selling more," Lebouff said. “Crystal Bridges has been a good thing for us”.
Thomas B. Merritt, owner of Studio 124 downtown, has an explanation for why shops are seeing increased sales, especially in art.
"As people go to Crystal Bridges, they're getting a genuine appreciation for art and as they're going, people want a piece of their own," Merritt said.
Merritt opened Studio 124 just five days before the opening of Crystal Bridges and has seen a number of visitors from all over the world since.
"You go see the greats (at Crystal Bridges) and then you come here or to one of the other galleries downtown and see what local artists are doing," Merritt said.
He believes downtown will do nothing but grow as Crystal Bridges gets bigger and new restaurants and more galleries open.
"Before Crystal Bridges opened, there was that anticipation that fueled excitement but we didn't really know what it all meant yet," Hintz said.
Since the Nov. 11 opening, he said a new reality has set in. A good one, now that downtown is beginning to morph into a new identity.
Another restaurant, T.H. Benton, is scheduled to open downtown in April. The restaurant will be joined by two more retail stores which are slated to open later this year, Hintz said.
He said T.H. Benton will display local and regional art through a recent agreement with the Eureka Arts Council.