Rich Grubbs is “like a kid with a new toy” when he talks about the possibilities of North Walton Boulevard in Bentonville.
Grubbs, owner of Arkansas Commercial Real Estate, believes that as the northern gateway to Bentonville, North Walton Boulevard offers untapped potential that rivals any other location in the city.
He’s not alone. A growing number of civic and business leaders are taking note of the area.
“North Walton is the corridor to Bella Vista and to Missouri, and Bella Vista’s gateway to Bentonville,” said Graham Cobb, CEO and president of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. “As we see the square and downtown grow, North Walton becomes that next phase of potential growth.”
With the completion of the trail system on the west side of the road, Grubbs said “North Walton will eventually serve as a beautiful, enjoyable and safe connection to places like Coler Mountain Reserve [just to the west] and the soon-to-be-revived Bella Vista Lake area.”
A 2013 study found that more than 10,000 vehicles a day travel the road, also known as U.S. Highway 71B, which runs from Central Avenue north to Bella Vista.
“North Walton carries a lot of traffic,” said Shelli Kerr, interim community and economic development director for the city. “And not just tourists, but people who are working between Bentonville and Bella Vista.”
Change on the street is already happening. Kerr pointed to the recent opening of the new Mercy Clinic at 1401 N. Walton Blvd., the renovation of Arvest Bank and addition of a bike pavilion at 405 N. Walton Blvd., and the planned conversion of the NCR building at 1510 N. Walton Blvd. into space for Bentonville School District’s Ignite Professional Studies program.
The city also has plans to improve the intersection at Tiger and North Walton boulevards and add a traffic signal at Northwest Third Street.
Burris Architecture owner Dave Burris relocated his office from Rogers to just off North Walton on Tiger Boulevard in order to be part of the growth and “be a big push” behind the boulevard’s development. He is encouraged by Harps Food Stores’ new grocery store that opened in March 2013, the addition of Walmart’s Neighborhood Market, and Mexican restaurant Las Palmas’ façade upgrade a few years ago. “And we’re slowly starting to see [new businesses] move to North Walton, like Dogwood Junction, a bike shop,” Burris said.
Grubbs, Cobb and Burris envision North Walton as a walkable boulevard with “old town” building exteriors of brick and stone, parking lots beautified with trees and decorative intersections. Additional sidewalks would line the street and fewer “curb cuts” would provide more protection for pedestrians and enable the road to become a walkable and bikeable extension from downtown Bentonville, stretching all the way to Coler Mountain and Lake Bella Vista.
Burris believes North Walton has long-term potential to be like The Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., or Delmar Loop in St. Louis, an old streetcar route that now offers six blocks of more than 145 specialty shops, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and live music.
Small retailers who can’t afford rent in downtown Bentonville will do well on North Walton because rent approximates “$12 to $13 per square foot as opposed to $18 to $20 per square foot,” on the square, Burris said. “This was an old business loop, an old highway, littered with older, smaller structures that have not seen growth potential. The benefit there is that we still have low rent rates,” Burris said. Because of that, he sees the area becoming a “funky retail corridor.”
Grubbs also has development plans for North Walton, beginning with property he owns at the Third Street intersection. He razed existing structures and had plans to build three buildings to house two local or regional restaurants and a retail/service type business. However, Grubbs said he is currently in negotiations with a group interested in taking the whole site, perhaps as early as this fall.
Transforming an old highway into an engaging, pedestrian-friendly boulevard will take some work.
Burris is working to get at least eight business owners or landlords to make improvements on their own properties. He believes that would start a transformational movement along North Walton.
“It’s worth it because we’re on the cusp of being really great,” Burris said.
He hopes privately funded improvements will encourage the city to add sidewalks.
Cobb said the city of Bentonville putting incentives in place to encourage development or redevelopment would be a big step toward making it more cost effective for developers and investors to go in there.
“Folks have to make a return,” he said.
Kerr said that while the city does not currently have incentives, that could change when a new mayor takes office in January. However, she said that after focusing on downtown development and redevelopment, the city is shifting to focus on its corridors like North Walton and Arkansas Highway 102.
“Those are priorities for us to make sure those areas are still viable,” she said.
Cobb, Burris and Grubbs all suggested creating an overlay district along North Walton, perhaps calling it “NorWal” or “NOW” to brand and distinguish the corridor from other areas.
“We need North Walton to have the same appeal that 8th Street Market or a Central Avenue corridor has,” Cobb said.
“I truly would like to see it develop with more of a local regional flavor with bike paths on both sides and make it more like the downtown area, instead of like South Walton, where you have a bunch of franchise restaurants and a real low walkability score,” Grubbs said.
According to Grubbs, a large group of North Walton advocates are meeting informally, and they hope to become more organized soon.
“We’re looking after the first of the year to start moving forward,” Grubbs said. “Hopefully if our vision comes through for North Walton, it’s going to be something fantastic. From what I’ve heard from other people, it will be the best that Bentonville has to offer, and that’s exciting to me.”