Northwest Arkansas officials provide updates on economic growth around food and recreation amenities

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 373 views 

David Wright is confident parks, trails and fine cuisine will remain a priority and continue to build on the quality of life for residents and visitors to Bentonville and Bella Vista.

The new Brightwater culinary school soon-to-be located in downtown Bentonville, 40 miles of recently completed mountain bike trails in Bella Vista, and a new all-inclusive children’s playground on tap at Citizen’s Park in Bentonville are a result of more than $53 million invested by cities and Walton Family Foundation into fun and food ventures that are seen as economic engines for the already diversified economy.

“In eight years we (Bentonville) have put more than $35 million of public funds into a parks and recreation infrastructure system. (Bentonville) Mayor (Bob) McCaslin sees a parks and recreation department not as a luxury, but as an essential service,” said Wright, director of parks and recreation for city of Bentonville.

Wright was one of three speakers touting the benefits of quality of life investments during the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber’s Business Matters breakfast on Friday (Dec. 2). Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie and Dr. Glenn Mack, director of Brightwater, were the other speakers.

Wright said the increased number of new homes built in Bentonville and Bella Vista are related to the fact that families want to live here. He said Bentonville’s 22 public parks  located on more than 900 acres is a big draw for families. From the new indoor swimming and fitness Community Center to the outdoor ice rink at Lawrence Park, open through mid-January, Bentonville continues set the bar high for other cities to follow, he said.

Wright said the expansive 25 miles of hard surface trails, 40 miles of soft surface trails and 11 miles of the Razorback Greenway that snake around the city are linear parks and they create an environment that the entire city lies within the boundary of the park system.

“We want every business and every rooftop to be accessible to a trail that will take them to a park or playground and that’s the way we have built out the infrastructure,” Wright said.

The city recently completed a new bike playground adjacent to the Bark Park located along North Walton Boulevard. The Razorback Greenway and the Slaughter Pen mountain bike trails also are accessible where there is paved parking and rest rooms. Wright said the new bike playground was funded with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Wright estimates about 2 million people use the city’s trails and parks annually.

He said the trails are putting Bentonville on the world map since the city recently hosted the International Mountain Biking Association’s World Summit. The event was a complete success, according to Visit Bentonville Director Kalene Griffith. She said the summit sold out a week prior to the start date for the first time in its 7-year history. She said the event had an economic impact of more than $400,000 for the city of Bentonville.

“IMBA is a game-changer. It has validated the unique meeting opportunity in our downtown Bentonville. It has huge potential in expanding our city as a meeting destination with a different model giving the attendees a full experience of our city,” Griffith said.

The event brought in guests from 40 states and 11 counties with more than 525 attendees and 100 vendors for the four days. The city’s trail system was given a Silver Level Ride Center rating by the International Mountain Bike Association. Wright hinted that the rating could go higher after the success of the summit.

Wright said in 2017 the city will continue to build out Citizens Park which is located next to the community center in the southwest part of the city near Arkansas 112 and the airport road. He said the 35-acre park will have an adjacent 1-mile walking trail and all inclusive playground for children with special needs. He said there will be hard surfaces for better wheelchair mobility and no steps. It will be the first playground in the city of its kind. But while the playground will be a destination for families with special needs kids, Wright also hopes all families use it so that children can play together regardless of handicap or special conditions.

“We are fortunate to live here and it’s our hope at Parks and Recreation that we can continue to contribute to the strong quality of life for not only Bentonville residents, but also guests from around the region and beyond,” Wright said.

Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie also hammered home the importance of trails to a city and regional economy. He said the Back 40 – soft surface trails that recently opened in Bella Vista with the help of a $3 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation – are already having an impact on the city.

Dec. 9-10 the city will host Ultra Running events held by Rush Running’s Mike Rush. Christie said the runs each day will feature a 40 mile, 20 mile and 10K option for runners. He said Rush expect hundreds of participants ready to explore the Back 40 trails, which begin at Blowing Springs Park and go into Missouri. The race is capped at 625 runners, which is good news for city eateries, and though the city does not have a hotel of its own, Christie said he’s feverishly working on it.

“Trails have been a great motivator for us. Cooper Communities, the POA and the city have worked together seamlessly on trail-related issues in an effort to make Bella Vista a place where people want to come and visit and perhaps live,” Christie said.

He said the city has seen residential building permits increase 58% this year, and the permits were up over a 35% jump last year. Christie said 137 new home permits have been issued over the past two years, a big jump after building stopped ahead of the 2008 recession. He said he recently visited with a builder with 2,700 lots who is again revisiting opportunities in the city.

“We continue to see young families moving in. Almost every house sold in Bella Vista today is sold to a young family,” Christie said.

He said the city and its partners have planned for another 150 miles of possible trails across the city, but that will require much more funding and remains a long-term goal. Christie said his new economic development manager Travis Stephens continues to work on getting more retail into the city and has 17 conversations ongoing with various retailers and restaurants about locating to Bella Vista.

Dr. Glenn Mack, director of the Brightwater culinary school, a department of the NorthWest Arkansas Community College, said he is prepared to move into the new 28,000-square-foot facility in the downtown Bentonville 8th Street Market over the next month. Mack said the fire inspector is to tour the facility next week and he’s hopeful a certificate of occupancy will be issued immediately afterward.

The $15 million makeover of the former Tyson Foods Krispie Chicken factory located in Bentonville’s Market District downtown will be a destination for foodies as well as professionals, and anyone who likes to eat, cook or shop for food. He said Brightwater will be the first tenant to occupy the 8th Street Market, and classes begin Jan. 17. The Bike Rack Brewery will be the second tenant, with a move set for sometime in January.

Mack said Brightwater will take a holistic approach to culinary education and bring in local flavors and expertise from Bentonville’s eclectic restaurant scene. Located along the Razorback Greenway, Mack sees Brightwater as a gathering place for residents who can grab food and drinks, sit and visit or move along the trails to the downtown Square just a few blocks away. He said the school will also be open to the public and offer opportunities around food nutrition as well as butchery and baking in community outreach programs.

Where possible, Mack said Brightwater will work with local farmers to not only buy their products but also be a centralized distributor for several of the local restaurants in town when it comes to local produce and meat. He said Brightwater is not like any other culinary school in the nation and will be a draw for food enthusiasts, but he also hopes it’s a rich resource for area residents.