Lack of hotels in Bella Vista limits tourists’ options

by Nancy Peevy ([email protected]) 1,099 views 

In Bella Vista, you can swim or fish in your choice of nine lakes, bike or hike on 53 miles of trail, play golf on any one of seven golf courses, or even get married in a woodland chapel. But there’s one thing that you can’t do in Bella Vista — spend the night in a hotel.

While there are lodging options such as vacation home rentals and a bed and breakfast, if you want to stay in a traditional hotel room, you’re out of luck. But that could be about to change.

As far back as 1917, people have vacationed in Bella Vista. That year the Linebarger brothers — Forest, Clayton and Clarence — opened a 300-acre “summer playground” called the Lake Bella Vista Summer Resort with a 30-room lodge that boasted bathrooms at each end of the building. Patrons enjoyed a dining hall and a pavilion for dancing. A nine-hole golf course, large swimming pool, horseback riding, tennis and fishing rounded out the amenities.

The Linebargers added the Sunset Hotel to their resort in 1929. Built high on the hill across from Bella Vista Lake, guests enjoyed a sweeping view of the surrounding area. Each of the 65 guest rooms had a private bathroom, and the imposing structure boasted a large lobby and an upscale restaurant. The resort was a popular tourist destination in the 1930s and ’40s. But the Linebargers sold the hotel in 1952, and it changed hands several times. After 1963, it never again operated as a hotel.

In 1964, John Cooper Sr. bought the Sunset Hotel, Lake Bella Vista and 36,000 acres of farmland from the lake north to the Missouri border. It was a starting point for the Bella Vista Village retirement community. Cooper’s plan was to sell home sites with the idea of “graduated retirement” where people bought lots that would be fully paid for by the time they were ready to retire.

“We didn’t see the need [for a hotel] early on because it was set up that you came in, you stayed at a house through vacation rentals, you looked at the village, decided to buy, came back and built,” said Jody Latham, president of Cooper Land Development.

Since a hotel wasn’t needed, the Sunset Hotel was remodeled into offices for Cooper Communities Inc. (CCI). In 1992, Cooper moved his operations to Town Center, and the building was left vacant. In July 1999, a suspected arsonist set fire to the hotel, and it burned to the ground.

Fast forward almost 20 years and, with the incorporation as a city in 2007, and a population of over 30,000, a lot has changed in Bella Vista. A lot has changed about why visitors come to Bella Vista, too. It is no longer solely a retirement area or bedroom community for Bentonville, but is becoming a destination in its own right.

“We have 250 weddings annually that take place in Bella Vista, [we have] the [Mildred B.] Cooper Chapel, the new Lake Point restaurant and the Simple Pleasures event venue,” said Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie. “We have more than 450 golf groups with anywhere between four and 30 golfers per group. We had the International Mountain Bike Association last year and a huge arts and crafts fair every year.”

No matter the reason people come to Bella Vista, many are looking to stay in a hotel. Chris and Andrea Eads chose the woodland setting of the Cooper Chapel for their wedding on June 3. The setting had everything they hoped for — with one exception. There was no hotel nearby where they could hold a reception and house their guests. Eads said because they served alcohol at their reception, they wanted guests to have a short commute to their hotel. Since there were no options in Bella Vista, they chose to have their reception at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers. Their guests stayed at the Hyatt Place Hotel in Rogers.

“If they had had a nice hotel [in Bella Vista] that had a reception area, we would have been able to have our reception and hotel at the same venue, and it would have been even better,” Eads said.

Helen Faulkner, golf administrative supervisor for Bella Vista POA, said her guests sometimes complain about the commute between hotels in neighboring cities and the golf courses in Bella Vista. She believes a hotel would be a good investment, given she has booked 8,480 out-of-town guests to play golf in Bella Vista through October of this year.

“A lot of people still rent a house [when they vacation], but just the concept of coming to Bella Vista to vacation has changed. It’s a different clientele that doesn’t always want to stay in a house,” Latham said. “I think before they were coming more just for the Village, but now they come for all of it — from Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art] to the bike trails. It’s just a different type of tourism.”

“Having a hotel in Bella Vista is going to tap into a new market that we’re not reaching,” Travis Stephens, Bella Vista’s economic development manager, said.

Seeing a hotel become reality in Bella Vista is of great importance to the leadership of the city and CCI.

“The demand is there. Now it’s just trying to convince the supply to come out to us,” Christie said. “Eager is probably on the low side of my excitement.”

While it is difficult to measure the impact of not having a hotel in Bella Vista, Stephens said there is an obvious economic loss to the city.

“The benefit of a hotel would be huge,” he said. “We have visitors coming into Bella Vista every day for golf, trails [and] weddings, but they can’t spend the night in Bella Vista. They have to go to one of our neighboring communities,” he said. “So that’s just an incredible amount of dollars the city is losing out on, because wherever people sleep is probably where they’re going to eat and buy any necessities they need.”

With Bella Vista’s 1% sales tax and the 2% Advertising and Promotion tax that goes into effect on Sept. 1, Stephens estimates the city would add at least $45,000 a year to its income with the addition of just one hotel. That doesn’t include the additional taxes that would come from increased business to restaurants and stores, he said. The city’s role is to facilitate the process of bringing a hotel to Bella Vista.

“From the city’s standpoint, we are here to support, encourage, work with anyone — any landowner in the city that wants to bring enterprise and commercial activity. That’s our position,” Stephens said. “In my day-to-day, I try to recruit anybody and everybody.”

While nothing is in the works, Stephens said several commercial brokers representing such major brands as Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn have contacted him to ask what sites might be available in Bella Vista. Because of land constraints, the number of hotels will be limited to one or two in Bella Vista.

“So, whoever that hotel is, is going to do quite well,” Stephens said.

Cooper is also eager for a hotel to become reality, and he would like to see a boutique hotel built on the 15-acre site of the old Sunset Hotel.

“That would bring back a little of old Bella Vista,” he said. “That area had a hotel that worked … and now you have the trail system at Blowing Springs, you have the lake, and right there is the [Razorback] Greenway that puts you into Bentonville, and you’re not far from the square …”

Cooper’s vision is to have a CCI residential development around the brow of Sunset Hill and partner with a hotel operator to build and manage a hotel on the top of the hill, since CCI is not in the hotel business.

“CCI is currently looking for partners for the project, and has reached out to investors and commercial realtors in the hopes of starting negotiations within the next year,” Latham said. “There are several ways we can do that, we can either partner with them, we supply the land and they supply the building, or we can section off the land and outright sell them the acreage.”

Cooper is eager to find a partner.

“Personally, I want to see this project built. I think that is the best hotel site in Bella Vista,” he said. “I’m champing at the bit to get it in 2018.”