What does it look like when the richest family in the world decides to make your hometown their playground? Something like this: first they build a museum in the Ozark hills and buy millions of dollars of American art to put on the walls. Admission is free. Then, building on that goodwill, they become a shadow local government of sorts—donating millions of dollars to "revitalize" downtowns, build regional greenways, put up murals, and fund nonprofits. Next they put up a second museum, mountain biking trails and music venues, all in the name of supporting their "home region"—Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart, the business that made them rich, has its corporate headquarters. And the most recent (though certainly not the last) step is FORMAT (the acronym somehow stands for "FOR Music, Art, and Technology"), a new music and arts festival that will take place on an airstrip in Bentonville this fall.
The festival is the brainchild of some of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s grandkids, who billed it as the "Woodstock" of Arkansas in an exclusive announcement in the Wall Street Journal. It’s unabashedly modeled off Austin City Limits—The Flaming Lips and Nick Cave will headline its inaugural year. And it’s similarly costly—three-day general admission tickets are $300 for now, VIP tickets are $900, and Platinum-level tickets, for those who have truly bought into FORMAT’s promise to "encourage discovery, spark curiosity, and build community," are $2,500 (with layaway plans starting at $250 down). If you want to glamp, your cheapest option is $1286.84 for two people, two cots, two sleeping bags, a rug, and a lantern, festival tickets not included. Destination hotel packages start at $2,800 a person.
The third generation of Walton heirs appears eager to remake the region in the image of rapidly developing, rapidly gentrifying metros around the country, and what they're going for seems to be some combination of Austin and Aspen—Nature! Affordability! Good weather! Tech scene! And as is the case for just about every story that goes this way, what they've built is something that could exist anywhere—but is not for everybody.
The most obvious clue that the FORMAT festival is not for people who already live in Northwest Arkansas is, ironically, the commitment the festival makes on its website. "To the community of Oz:" the dictum reads, "We hope that through our local artist competitions, artist workshops, open call performance participation, and general job opportunities, we will provide a platform for artistic and work development in the region." In more than two decades as a northwest Arkansas resident and expat, I have never once heard anyone call the region Oz. The vibe is very much, as a friend who still lives and works there puts it, "My fellow members of the Oz Community: Munchkins, Flying Monkeys, the Tin Man." Yet it is these living, breathing locals, the flying monkeys of Oz, who will almost certainly staff the "Bizarre Bazaar," the disco barn, and "The Cube" that will provide three days of entertainment for festival-goers, who the Waltons told the Journal will be "up to 17,000 people in their 30s and 40s."
"The region has been telling them, this is what we need. If you’re going to bring all this stuff in, all these people, then we need these things—fair wages, affordable housing, decent infrastructure. We don’t need bike trails, we don’t need arts districts. Not yet anyway,"
FORMAT is one of the more audacious embodiments of the quest to bring people in and urbanize northwest Arkansas over the past several years. The metro region, as generally understood, encompasses four towns north to south along I-49: Bentonville (the corporate headquarters of Walmart), Rogers (my hometown), Springdale (the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods), and Fayetteville (the flagship state university). It has ballooned rapidly, the population increasing by more than 105,000 people and accounting for more than 100 percent of the state’s total growth in the last decade. The population is estimated to reach nearly 1 million by 2045. Right now, more than 30 people move there every day, and the cost of living is swelling accordingly.
Walmart’s first store opened in Rogers in 1962, and the chain soon spread around the Ozarks, which at that time was and remains mostly rural, with poultry farming and processing, canning factories, and tourism the region’s primary economic drivers. It was actually the poultry industry that first changed the region’s economics decades before Walmart appeared on the scene; Tyson Foods, now the largest poultry processing company in the world, was founded in Springdale in the 1940s. Before (and after) Walmart, the Ozarks were a rural, agricultural region like many others, dominated by small (though getting larger) farms, tourist outposts, resort towns, and summer camps that promised relaxation and connection to nature. This is not to paint the pre-Walton Ozarks as an idyllic, undisturbed part of the country; to the contrary, the Ozarks were (and the Ozarks outside of the Walton orbit remains) poor, remote, and economically exploited. The mountains have provided cover for racist sentiment and hate groups; white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan, populate communities in parts of the Ozarks, and until 2020, a Confederate statue stood in the Bentonville town square.
By 1990, the Walmart company was the country’s largest retailer. It’s topped the Fortune 500 list for 17 of the last 20 years, and its corporate headquarters have been in Bentonville since the 1970s. The family name is everywhere in northwest Arkansas: Bud Walton Arena, where the University of Arkansas basketball teams play; the Walton College of Business, at the same university; when Walnut Street—a main thoroughfare—crosses from Rogers to Bentonville, its name changes to "Walton Boulevard." Even Arvest, the largest local bank, was started and remains mostly owned by the Walton family. Sam and Helen Walton were the patriarch and matriarch; their children Alice, Jim, and Rob Walton (a fourth, John, died in a plane crash in 2005), and a number of grandchildren, including Jim’s oldest sons Tom and Steuart, have taken the reins of the family’s regional development in recent years. Sam and Helen created the Walton Family Foundation in 1987, and for many years its prime function was seeding and funding the national charter school movement.
But in the last two decades the foundation has been critical to molding northwest Arkansas in the Walton’s image by funding projects all over the area—including Crystal Bridges, an American art museum on which Alice Walton and the Walton Family Foundation collectively spent more than $1 billion, bike and mountain bike trails, and design competitions sponsored by the company that bring in firms mostly from outside the region to rethink and redesign its public spaces. The foundation also funds a "think and do" tank called Heartland Forward, focused on job creation and economic growth in the 20-state region it defines as the Heartland. Through their holding company the Runway Group, Tom and Steuart have shaped the region’s outdoors, restaurant, and real estate scene. Simply put, the Waltons’ fingerprints are everywhere.
And their work to make the region an alternative to expensive metros has dramatically increased the cost of living. A 2019 report on affordable housing released by the foundation, with input from the Northwest Arkansas Council (a local economic development group founded by Sam Walton and late Tyson CEO Don Tyson) and local governments, concluded that "housing is becoming increasingly inaccessible to the region’s workers, families, and seniors." There aren’t enough houses and apartments being built to accommodate the expected population; the ones that are being built are for upper middle-class families—the kind that work at Walmart’s corporate headquarters and the vendors who have offices in the area, or in the museum and tech scene. Walmart is in the middle of constructing a new corporate campus in the mold of Google and Apple, which will take up 350 acres of Bentonville near downtown and, the company says, is designed to "complement the growth and evolution of Bentonville’s broader urban development plan," including more bike trails, a massive fitness center, and a hotel. Most of the housing developments right now aren’t for the workers in the food hall at the center of the new campus, the coffee shops that dot Bentonville’s downtown, or the poultry processing plants in Rogers and Springdale—a familiar story for anyone who knows, for instance, Austin.
There are many, many other Walton-funded and Walton-founded projects, too many to name, that are great to put on brochures and double as PR for the family’s magnanimity. Crystal Bridges can be seen as a way to democratize access to art; it’s free, it’s in the middle of the country, and its art collection is staggering. But it has also been used as a selling point for northwest Arkansas, a way to attract top corporate talent to Walmart-land. The Momentary, Crystal Bridges’ satellite campus and a venue for contemporary art, trumpets "You Belong Here" in huge neon letters on the side of the old Kraft cheese factory it occupies—but in this context, the audience for that message is as much the incoming Austinites and San Franciscans to whom the new generations of heirs and developers want to cater as it is the people who have roots in the area.
And Arkansas knows Austin. Arkansas is trying to attract Austin. OZ Brands, an initiative of the Runway Group, ran a contest earlier this year offering Austinites a one-way ticket to Northwest Arkansas, on the theory that once they came they wouldn’t want to leave. A Bloomberg opinion piece earlier this year asked in its headline, "The Next Austin? How About Arkansas. Seriously." The Northwest Arkansas Council has been running ads in Austin that read: "Wish You’d Bought in Austin 10 Years Ago? Introducing Northwest Arkansas."
And when you’re moving to Arkansas from Austin or San Francisco, what’s expensive for Arkansas looks cheap to you, so people moving in with cash to spend drives housing prices up. If my circle of Instagram stories, group chats, and Twitter replies can act as a small sample size, there’s a growing number of people like me, with roots in the region and even some level of debt to the Waltons and their affiliated economic and philanthropic ventures, who are increasingly uneasy about how this experiment of theirs will turn out.
"The region has been telling them, this is what we need. If you’re going to bring all this stuff in, all these people, then we need these things—fair wages, affordable housing, decent infrastructure. We don’t need bike trails, we don’t need arts districts. Not yet anyway," says Jared Phillips, a professor of Ozarks history at the University of Arkansas who lives on a small farm outside the region’s urban core. "What we need are practical things, and instead they decided to spend money on bike trails and concert venues. Stuff that looks good to upper middle class folks who think Arkansas is devoid of culture."
I asked Nelson Peacock, the Council’s executive director, if he saw any contradiction between the council’s ads and the recent reports on the growing lack of affordable housing—reports linked on its website. "I don’t know that our recruitment of people has moved the needle on growth," he said, which begs the question, why run them at all?
From the Council’s point of view, Peacock told me, incentivizing entrepreneurial and tech growth is critical to ensuring the economic longevity of the region. He cited another 2019 report commissioned by the Council and themed "Innovate Again, Innovate Here!" that concluded the region’s economy needed to diversify, reclaiming its "history of iconic examples of world-changing entrepreneurs" to ensure growth in the coming years. The Council and the Foundation have taken that mandate and run with it, investing and inviting in start-ups. "We have thousands of jobs open right now. And so we have to either fill those locally, we have to recruit talent to fill them, or we don’t have those jobs anymore," he said.
To hear Peacock tell it, the affordable housing squeeze is not at crisis levels yet. There’s still time to address the problem before Northwest Arkansas balloons to its projected populations, he thinks. The Council recently hired a director for its Workforce Housing Center, which will be its effort, Peacock said, to "communicate to public, elected officials, to stakeholders, why it's important for us to get this right, and the consequences of not getting it right." The target populations for this effort, according to its promo materials and my conversations with Peacock, will be teachers, first responders, and firefighters, all of whom are "core to the community." Not so much mentioned in these conversations are the thousands of people, most of them Latino and Marshallese immigrants, who work at poultry processing facilities in and around Springdale, usually making somewhere between $12 and $18 an hour. Those are the people who can barely afford housing now, who will be most priced out of the urban core, and least likely to afford transportation from the rural hinterlands in the future.
To listen to Alice Walton, the founder of Crystal Bridges, on CBS’s Sunday Morning a few weeks ago, arts and culture didn’t exist until she brought it here. "Before the museum, was there an arts and culture tourism sector in this region?" the reporter asks her. "Nonexistent. Nonexistent," Alice replies. But like any other rural mountain region, the Ozarks tourist economy has long relied on culture. Maybe it’s more Dogpatch USA or Monte Ne Resort than Crystal Bridges, more Opera in the Ozarks than co-owning a painting with the Met, but the Ozarks were not as separated from culture as Alice Walton would have it; we just had our own. Ozark folk music, Ozark outdoors culture, Ozark folk art, Ozark vernacular architecture all predated the Walton cultural influx. In the 1970s, the Ozarks attracted back-to-the-landers, part of the era’s counterculture, who started communes, cults, and art communities across the hills. There were UFO conferences, lesbian separatist communes. Eureka Springs, about an hour outside of Bentonville, was the center of the Ozarks art world long before Crystal Bridges was a thought in Alice Walton’s mind. A Victorian resort town, it was the gathering place for queer culture in the region, for folk artists and farmers while—as historian Bethany Moreton recounts—Walmart was still projecting an image of fundamentalist Christianity and the gender norms that came with it.
And as the region’s demographics began changing in the 1990s with the in-migration of immigrants to work in poultry factories, those communities brought in their own culture, their own art. In a telling turn of events, many local art groups and nonprofits now rely on Walton Family Foundation funding, limiting their ability to publicly disagree with the direction in which the Waltons are taking Northwest Arkansas.
There’s something kind of tragic about watching the place you grew up become a caricature of what a few rich people think the proles must want. I actually agree with Alice Walton, who says that the New York art scene's objections to Crystal Bridges were largely provincial, and that what she’s doing is democratizing access to art (though also, conveniently, offering her good PR and a place to store the work she’s been collecting for years). I don’t love property values and housing costs rising so quickly that buying a home, which would have been very feasible for someone like me a decade or two ago, now appears all but impossible. I will not soon forget the experience of sitting in Onyx, a ritzy coffee shop (no really, it's won international awards) a few blocks from the modest, cheap house I was born in on the manufacturing side of town, in the previously abandoned downtown that has only recently become "cool" again thanks to millions of dollars in Walton investments, and being told proudly by a man trying to hit on me that he had bought "the last house in downtown Rogers."
Almost a century ago, Ozark tourism entrepreneurs claimed the mountains were a primitive land of the past, unsullied by modernity. Back then, Ozarks folklorist Vance Randolph said that the realtors and developers pitching the region as a "summer playground" made a lot of promises about the ways tourism money would aid the region’s struggling farmers. But "the truth is," Randolph wrote, "that the hill farmer sees very little of this money." This time around, "Oz" and the FORMAT festival that will occupy it want you to believe that the Ozarks are a futuristic, technified land of the future, with all the beauty of a simple past. Come here, to this place out of time, to escape, they say. It’s a way of capitalizing off a vision of the Ozarks that has increasingly less to do with the people who live there, and more with the desires of a select few. For all the talk about keeping the Ozarks unique, the vision the Waltons and their sphere of influence are implementing sure seems to be heading down the same path as the places whose talent it is trying to poach.
Top photo by Getty Images/Gilles Mingasson.
TopicsWhere We Live Now
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