Education, trail construction and arts get Walton Foundation funding in ‘Home Region’

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 633 views 

Almost one-third of the Walton Family Foundation’s $48.6 million Home Region investment went to pre-K–12 and higher education last year, according to the Bentonville-based organization’s annual report for 2016.

The foundation invested about $8 million to improve pre-K–12 education, a priority for its work in the Northwest Arkansas and Delta regions laid out in its 2020 Home Region Strategic Plan.

The foundation gave $2.1 million to KIPP Delta Public Schools, a charter school network in the Arkansas Delta, and $1.7 million to the Arkansas chapter of Teach for America. Both entities were identified within the plan as key to improving education in the Delta.

In Northwest Arkansas, Thaden School, a private secondary school opening in Bentonville in the fall, and the charter secondary school Haas Hall Academy each received about $1.6 million in 2016, and the Helen Walton Children’s Enrichment Center, a child care center and nonprofit aiming to improve pre-K offerings throughout Northwest Arkansas, received $529,791.

Another chunk of spending went to the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation ($325,769), a nonprofit that has advocated on education issues and whose board of directors includes Jim Walton, Murphy Oil Chairman Claiborne Deming, WEHCO Media CEO Walter Hussman and Dillard’s Vice President William Dillard III.

The foundation also supported the Arkansas Arts Academy ($166,401) and the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science (75,000), a National Math and Science Initiative affiliate that aims to improve AP test scores for high school students. The Rogers, Bentonville and Pea Ridge school districts collectively received $262,763 last year, according to the foundation’s annual report.

The foundation spent $6.5 million on higher education efforts, including about $5 million to the NorthWest Arkansas Community College Foundation, which went to support Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food, the school’s culinary program that opened this spring in a former Tyson Foods plant in downtown Bentonville.

The Community Development Corporation of Bentonville Bella Vista received $3.6 million from the foundation last year in order to fund the adaption of the facility into the 8th Street Market, which houses Brightwater.

“The Walton Family Foundation support has been integral in the development of Brightwater and NWACC’s culinary program expansion,” said Glenn Mack, executive director of Brightwater. “Their investment will enable NWACC to become a world-class training provider of culinary education and be better equipped to respond to the rapidly growing needs of tourism-related industries in the region.”

NWA Trailblazers of Bentonville, a nonprofit that builds multiuse cycling/walking trails, was the biggest Home Region benefactor of Walton Foundation funding in 2016, receiving $10.9 million.

Erin Rushing, executive director of the organization, said last year saw the culmination of several projects in various stages of completion throughout the Northwest Arkansas region and included both design work and construction phases.

“We have a list of 20 to 25 various projects we work on at a time,” Rushing said.

Last year’s funding helped cover the $3 million Bella Vista Back 40, a soft trail completed last year, the Coler trail, a paved and soft trail now under construction on the western side of Bentonville, a $1 million downtown path in Bentonville, and 2.4 miles of trail between Bentonville and Rogers, among other projects, Rushing said.

NWA Trailblazers has been building trails in Northwest Arkansas for almost 20 years. It began with the path around Lake Bella Vista, he said.

“It hasn’t slowed down since. It’s steadily increased in volume of trails and projects. We love trails, connectivity and getting people out of the house and on bikes for recreation and transportation.”

The Walton Foundation last year also supported the Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks ($312,371), Ozark Off Road Cyclists ($44,250) and the International Mountain Bicycling Association ($15,000), according to the report. The 2020 strategic plan calls for nurturing of the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas, in part through trail-related efforts.

The 2020 Home Region Strategic Plan also calls for establishing the Northwest Arkansas region as an arts and culture leader, and in 2016 almost $7 million of Walton Foundation funding went to the arts, including $2.2 million to the performance art company TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, $1.9 million to Walton Arts Center Council in Fayetteville and $1.8 million to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

“The foundation really means it when they say they want to help create a better quality of life in Northwest Arkansas and make our region a national leader in the arts,” said TheatreSquared Executive Director Martin Miller. “Our community’s vision of building NWA’s first permanent home for professional theatre is fast approaching reality, thanks in no small part to the foundation’s belief in that vision.”

TheatreSquared is building a new facility in downtown Fayetteville, and the foundation has pledged $12.5 million toward the design and construction of it.

Also in 2016, the city of Rogers received $3.2 million, and Bentonville received $2.1 million, according to the report. Several other municipalities received funding, as did the Northwest Arkansas Council ($2.1 million). In Rogers, the money went to construction of parks projects, like Lake Atalanta and the Railyard, in addition to downtown projects, including the design of the renovation of the Rogers Historical Museum, said Luis Gonzalez, senior communications officer for the Home Region program.

The investments fit into a larger goal of supporting economic development and preserving a “sense of place” in Northwest Arkansas, according to the Walton Foundation website.

Organizations that support entrepreneurial efforts, Winrock International and the NWA Venture Fund, received $642,511, according to the 2016 annual report. In the Delta, the 2020 plan also aims to promote youth programs, improve public safety and invest in targeted job creation through investment in Southern Bancorp Community Partners, to which it donated $750,000 last year.

Overall, the plan calls for $300 million in investment in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta during the five years leading up to 2020.