Nestled in the Ozark foothills Bella Vista is a young city – just 9.5 years old – and still struggling to grow its commercial sector amid a challenging topography and limited financial resources.
In an effort to spur commercial growth, Mayor Peter Christie who was elected in 2014 recently hired Travis Stephens to the newly created position of economic development manager.
Stephens relocated with his family to Bella Vista in May from the Clarksville, Ark., area where he most recently worked as the CEO of the Clarksville-Johnson County Regional Chamber of Commerce for five years. He said the challenges the position brings and the larger metro area was attractive to him and his family.
He said there is untapped opportunity for growth in Bella Vista for businesses who want to serve the city’s nearly 30,000 residents. For example, those residents have just 17 restaurants and not a single car wash or coffee shop in the city limits. He said Bella Vista is widely underserved in many areas in comparison to say Russellville, which has about 80 restaurants for its nearly 30,000 residents.
“Granted Russellville is on I-40 and it doesn’t have Bentonville next door with all of its restaurants and other businesses patronized by our residents,” Stephens said. “There is still room for more businesses to seek out this area. We are looking for small businesses like the new GPP bike shop that opened in the Sugar Creek Village Shopping Center.”
‘USING WHAT YOU HAVE’
Stephens said the 40 miles of mountain bike trails the city is trying to finish before October’s international mountain biking festival in Bentonville is a catalyst for businesses like GPP and hopefully others who want tap into the wealth of the growing sport. What the city lacks in flat, buildable land along U.S. 71, it more than makes up for in outdoor recreational amenities that if honed and expanded can help to grow the local economy, he said.
“Economic development 101 is about using what you have and for Bella Vista that’s going to be recreation because the topography lends itself to this new age development concept like mountain biking, trail running, kayaking and water sports,” he said.
An Outdoor Industry Association study found that outdoor recreation spending totals $646 billion annually and is responsible for supporting 6.1 million American jobs. To put that in perspective, outdoor recreation has nearly twice the spending as the pharmaceutical industry and more than twice the spending on household utilities or gasoline and other fuels. Health care spending was slightly higher at $780 million. The cities that cater to outdoor recreation reap more than $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue each year, according to the report.
Bella Vista is the beneficiary of a $3 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation made to NWA Trailblazers for the construction of a new 40-mile mountain bike trail system in the city. Called the Back 40 Loop, the first 12.5 miles opened earlier this month. Because the trails are a public resource, the city is managing the Back 40 Loop trails, according to Casey Lapp, community information director for the city of Bella Vista, also a newly created position by Mayor Christie. The local Property Owners Association continues to oversee the lakes, golf courses and other amenities.
Stephens said the niche economies built around outdoor recreation are Bella Vista’s best chance to grow commercially. He said the next phase will be to recruit other businesses to the city who want to locate near a mountain trail system which over time will include more than 150 miles of trails around the region.
Seth Jacobs manages the new GPP Cycling shop that opened in Bella Vista three months ago. He told Talk Business & Politics that the Rogers-based business had been eyeing Bella Vista for some time because of the number of customers they were getting from the city.
“There is a growing number of bikers and trail enthusiasts who live in Bella Vista and for those who live in the Highlands, it could be an hour long trip to Rogers and back to just to get a new bike tire tube. We felt like in a city of 27,000 people there needed to be at least one bike shop so we started looking for a location late last year,” Jacobs said.
When the space in the shopping center became available, Jacobs said they jumped on the opportunity because of the location in proximity to the Back 40 Trailhead and what could be an extension to the Razorback Greenway. The shop is smaller than its home base in Rogers and its store in Fayetteville, but he said the biking community has been receptive and it’s been a nice fit for the local cycle business. Jacobs adds that as a resident of the Bella Vista, he too would like to see more choices for consumers.
“You can’t even buy a pair of tennis shoes in Bella Vista. It would be nice to see some more small businesses locate here and perhaps keep some of the dollars local, instead of going over the state line to that Walmart supercenter,” he said.
Stephens said the city is actively trying to recruit businesses, and in particular, a coffee shop, and a brewery that can service the patrons of the Razorback Greenway and trail system and hopefully be located near the trailheads.
“With the land we do have we want to be selective about the businesses recruit, but we don’t own the land so property owners can sell to whomever they choose,” he said.
Stephens has been in talks with large restaurant chains but the available land in Bella Vista doesn’t necessarily fit their corporate model which must have 60 parking spaces and be located at an intersection, for instance. He is reminded of a few years back when convenience store Kum & Go opted out of building on U.S. 71 at Riordan Lane because they did not have enough land for their corporate model. However, competitor Casey’s General Store scaled back their plan and did build on the site and now has an active business as one of only four gas stations in the city. Casey’s sandwich bar and pizza is available 24 hours a day, while most of the other food establishments are closed by 10 p.m.
“That’s a story I need to try and sell other businesses to encourage them to think outside their normal box and look at what is available in the city and try and modify to fit that space,” Stephens said. “Food trucks are another niche economic development strategy we are implementing given the shortage of available land for building.”
He said the city has reached out to a few truck owners, but established owners like their locations, which is requiring the city to get the word out that it would be a lucrative local market for food trucks given the small number of restaurants.
“It is my understanding that the owner of the property where Street Ninja and the snow cone truck are located has talked to a couple of other trucks and is interested in adding others. I’ve been told a barbecue truck is interested and may be coming soon,” Stephens added.
A lack of restaurants are the not only amenity in short supply for a city trying to capture tourism and recreation dollars. There is not a single hotel in the city, but Stephens said there are 150 rooms available via online booking though the likes of condo rentals, AirBnB and other shared hospitality sites.
He said the shared-economy is also a niche concept now resonating with more people and is a way Bella Vista can get by with hotel shortages. Stephens also said there are enough mountain bikers who live in Northwest Arkansas who will use the trails on daily basis that there isn’t an urgent need for a hotel.
Lastly, Stephens said the city is planning to hold entrepreneur workshops for folks who want to start businesses. He’s also working with AON Invent, a Bella Vista business that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into sellable products. He said perhaps the city can pair potential business owners with the expertise they need to get the ball rolling.