Initial construction will start this summer on new Walmart corporate campus

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 6,299 views 

Retail giant Walmart Inc. has released additional details about its much-discussed new corporate campus in Bentonville and the first visible signs are imminent of what will arguably be the largest-ever construction project in Northwest Arkansas.

Company officials said demolition, infrastructure and utility construction at the roughly 350-acre site will begin in July. The new corporate campus will be built to the east side of Southeast J Street, between Central Avenue (Highway 72) and 14th Street (Highway 102), with Eighth Street running through it.

On Friday (May 17), Walmart released several conceptual drawings that provide a glimpse of what a new corporate campus may one day look like.

Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs and the lead executive overseeing the new corporate campus project, said there is still “a lot of work to be done” in terms of the design process, what work environments may look like, and what operations (merchandising, logistics, supply chain etc.) will go where. The number of new buildings that will be built wasn’t disclosed Friday.

But the development plan unveiled Friday gives the company the conceptual framework to move forward “all the way through 2024 and beyond.”

“We have not crossed every ‘T’ and dotted every ‘I’ about what every single building will look like on the outside and inside,” Bartlett said. “This is a massive project that is going to be complex. There won’t be one defining moment where it’s all done. It’s going to be done in phases and our [employees] will phase into the new facilities over multiple years.”

The complexity will be due to the existing buildings that are included in the footprint of the future corporate campus. There are some Walmart-owned buildings that will be razed to make way for new construction. Most of them were once Walmart warehouses that have since been converted for a variety of uses (associate store, layout center, employment center, office space, etc.). There’s also a large amount of property used for trailer parking and truck maintenance.

There are also large office buildings in the footprint that Walmart acquired in the run-up to the September 2017 announcement. Those will either be repurposed or razed to make way for new construction.

Some Walmart employees have already relocated, Bartlett said. In March, company officials unveiled a new 1.25 million-square-foot facility (Distribution Center 7842) at 5800 S.W. Regional Airport Road in Bentonville. That’s allowed some employees to move there who were working in various operations where the new campus will be.

Bartlett said Walmart has consulted with several design firms about the project and has taken input from multiple consultants and gleaned elements from different companies and their headquarters — and even college campuses. The company is still, however, going through a bidding process to select a lead architect.

Bartlett did not disclose a construction cost Friday. One real estate executive in Benton County has previously estimated Walmart’s investment could be close to $1 billion.

“We’re going to phase this in over multiple years and that process will allow us to manage the capital costs that a project like this will require,” Bartlett said. “There won’t be any one given quarter or year that will take on the brunt of the expense. It’s one we can blend over multiple years. We feel comfortable that this will fall into our typical annual budgeting process.”

Walmart’s existing headquarters is a patchwork of mostly repurposed buildings at the corner of 8th Street and Walton Boulevard, and has grown ad hoc since first established by Sam Walton in the 1970s. In fact, the buildings the company considers its headquarters are spread out over more than 20 buildings in Bentonville and Rogers.

“We are stressing the outer limits of that capacity,” Bartlett said. “Physically being able to get under multiple roofs on one campus is something we feel is really important. We are striving to attract and retain talent in order to win the future of retail. A key component of that is the work environment.”

At the company’s home office on Friday morning, Bartlett and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon held a news conference with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman to unveil a 3D model of the design plans. Walmart announced its intention to build a new headquarters in September 2017. That came just a couple of months after the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal reported the company had been busy acquiring land in the area in anticipation of moving forward with the new home office.

COMMUNITY ACCESSIBILITY
The development plan indicates a large green space with walking trails and ponds at the south end of the campus along Arkansas Highway 102, where the Walton Life Fitness Center and tennis courts are currently situated. The park will be open to the public. Bartlett also noted the Razorback Regional Greenway runs through the heart of the campus.

“I’m thinking of it as more of a college or university campus as opposed to a walled-off corporate headquarters,” Bartlett said. “That’s what is going to be very distinctive about this campus is it’s going to be very accessible.”

Bartlett also said the company has been working for years to be a more sustainable company and development of the new campus would reflect that. Examples to that end will be solar panels atop parking decks, energy-efficient lighting and HVAC systems, and regionally sourced building materials, including mass timber construction.

“In addition to the connected design of the campus as a whole, the new Walmart campus will showcase thousands of trees, shrubs and grasses to provide habitat for wildlife, shade paths and bike trails, and reconnect associates with nature,” he said.

Bartlett said a new layout center would be the first new building to be built at the new campus, in the northeast corner of the campus, but a timeline was not definitive. The existing layout center on Fifth Street is in the quadrant where the new Walton Life Fitness Center will be, so the layout center will be demolished in preparation for that construction.

Once the new layout center is built and is operational, work will begin to raze and grade the area where the new fitness center will be on the northwest quadrant.

COMMON QUESTIONS
Bartlett said one of the most popular questions he is asked is what will become of the current Home Office. He said there are no pre-determined plans for the property, only that the company will not allow it to deteriorate.

“It’s not going to be a blight on this side of town,” he said. “It’s safe to say that the building structure that you see today will not be here. We’ve had conversations with multiple stakeholders, including the city leadership, about what would be something the community could be excited about. Whether that’s retail space or something more community-oriented, we are keeping an open mind. We’re going to be very conscientious of what is here.”

As for the new campus, Bartlett said Walmart employees are most curious about two design elements — improved parking and improved natural lighting for office interiors.

“Those are the areas we know we have to nail down,” he joked. “There will be plenty of light, taller ceilings and plenty of parking.”

Other amenities Bartlett discussed Friday related to “making life efficient” for employees when they’re on campus. That includes accessible childcare on or near the campus, and a “very curated” experience for food besides simply a cafeteria. He mentioned food trucks as part of that strategy.

He said the campus would take advantage of its setting in Northwest Arkansas as opposed to a major urban area like New York City, Chicago or Dallas. An example would be leveraging the trail system to incentivize employees to ride bikes to work.

“We’ll leverage the environment we are operating in,” he said. “We think it will be competitively distinctive for us to create an environment that will be competitive with other companies when it comes to amenities, but with some intangibles. We’re located in a high-performance culture, but in a part of a country that has a different perspective and a different angle on life. [The design] will take advantage of the natural beauty of the region.”

Other bells and whistles such as interfacing technology, smart parking, on-site health clinics and retail services on or near the campus like, for example, dry cleaning are all design elements company officials can explore as the campus takes shape over the next several years.

“The community will start to see in the next few months the beginning of an exciting chapter in Walmart’s history,” Bartlett said. “The new Home Office will enable us to work together in new ways, accelerate our digital transformation and set us on a path for future success.”

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