Mu­seum-tied ho­tel has Wal­ton stamp

Crys­tal Bridges draws few out­siders

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - EVIE BLAD

BEN­TONVILLE — Lead­ers have touted the Crys­tal Bridges Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, un­der con­struc­tion north of down­town, as a cat­a­lyst for other large-scale projects that will im­prove the re­gion’s econ­omy.

But the first project ex­plic­itly tied to the mu­seum, a well-known bou­tique ho­tel an­nounced last week, will be fi­nanced by the mu­seum’s cre­ators, the fam­ily of Wal­Mart Stores Inc. founder Sam Wal­ton.

Eco­nomic-devel­op­ment of­fi­cials say much of the mu­seum’s im­pact won’t be fully re­al­ized un­til it opens, in­spir­ing in­vestors less fa­mil­iar with the area to build on its mo­men­tum.

“I wouldn’t be in­ter­ested in Ben­tonville at all if it weren’t for Crys­tal Bridges,” said Louisville, Ky., phi­lan­thropist and arts pa­tron Steve Wil­son.

Wil­son and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, founders of the 21c Mu­seum Ho­tel in Louisville, on Tues­day an­nounced plans to build a $28 mil­lion, five-story ver­sion of the award-win­ning gallery, ho­tel and res­tau­rant. The ho­tel, be­tween Ben­tonville’s his­toric square and the 100-acre wooded site for the mu­seum and de­signed to spark re­vi­tal­iza­tion at the city’s core, will be funded by a part­ner­ship of Wal­ton fam­ily mem­bers and Ben­tonville Re­vi­tal­iza­tion Inc., a group that sup­ports ren­o­va­tions down­town.

The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion and Wal­ton’s daugh­ter, Alice Wal­ton, are fund­ing Crys­tal Bridges, which will host a cov­eted col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can art rang­ing from colo­nial to mod­ern eras, in­clud­ing works by Nor­man Rock­well and John Singer Sar­gent.

Ben­tonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said Tues­day that the mu­seum would have “the great­est im­pact in the short­est pe­riod of time” in North­west Arkansas by draw­ing other large projects that pro­mote vis­ual and per­form­ing arts and qual­ity of life for res­i­dents.

But the re­gion has yet to see a large project an­nounce­ment tied to the mu­seum not fi­nanced by the Wal­ton fam­ily, whose com­mit­ment to North­west Arkansas has been shown through other projects.

Some projects, such as a chil­dren’s mu­seum, are still in fundrais­ing phases.

While the mu­seum at­tracted his at­ten­tion and se­cured a cus­tomer base, Wil­son said he would have moved for­ward with plans to build his ho­tel in Ben­tonville, pop­u­la­tion 35,000, even with­out fi­nan­cial back­ing from the Wal­tons, he said.

“I have no doubt that this mu­seum is go­ing to change Ben­tonville for the bet­ter,” Wil­son said. “If it weren’t for the mu­seum, we wouldn’t be in­ter­ested in a mar­ket that small.”

To max­i­mize Crys­tal Bridges’ ef­fects on the re­gion’s tourism in­dus­try, it’s im­por­tant for other in­vestors

to fi­nance large projects that will sus­tain in­ter­est from outof-town­ers, said Kathy Deck, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas at Fayet­teville.

“I love liv­ing in North­west Arkansas, but when peo­ple come to visit, I think, ‘ What should we do now?’” she said. “We need to make sure there’s enough choices to hold [tourists’] in­ter­est.”

It’s seen as un­prece­dented to open a mu­seum of this scale in a city the size of Ben­tonville, leav­ing eco­nomicde­vel­op­ment lead­ers un­sure of what to ex­pect. While tourists fre­quently visit art mu­se­ums in larger cities, the mu­se­ums aren’t al­ways the pri­mary at­trac­tion, Deck said.

If Crys­tal Bridges sets off a chain of larger an­nounce­ments, the 21c Mu­seum Ho­tel may be the next link in the chain, she said.

“This is not the only devel­op­ment that has been spurred by Crys­tal Bridges,” she said. “A lot of the ho­tel rooms built since it was first an­nounced have been built in an­tic­i­pa­tion.”

Mu­seum of­fi­cials es­ti­mate 250,000 peo­ple will visit the mu­seum in its first year. When Alice Wal­ton an­nounced the project in 2005, she said it would open in spring 2009. Crys­tal Bridges now has no pub­lic con­struc­tion time­line af­ter site is­sues de­layed com­ple­tion.

The re­gion’s hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try grew in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the orig­i­nal com­ple­tion date, Deck said.

Statis­tics com­piled by mar­ket re­search group Smith Travel Re­search show that Benton and Washington coun­ties grew from 63 ho­tels in 2003 to 100 in 2009.

The mu­seum’s in­flu­ence also can be seen on the Ben­tonville square, where store­fronts have been ren­o­vated and restau­rants opened in an­tic­i­pa­tion of open­ing day, Deck said.

“A lot of the in­vest­ment that has gone on has had one eye on Crys­tal Bridges,” she said.

Daniel Hintz, di­rec­tor of Down­town Ben­tonville, agreed.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion is fo­cused on small de­vel­op­ments as much as large ones, he said.

“There has to be a rubric of ex­pe­ri­ences for a dy­namic down­town to be sus­tain­able,” Hintz said.

WAL­TON IN­FLU­ENCE The Wal­ton fam­ily and as­so­ci­ated or­ga­ni­za­tions ap­pear to have the re­sources for fur­ther de­vel­op­ments in the down­town area.

The fam­ily’s com­mit­ment to North­west Arkansas is vis­i­ble in other projects, such as Fayet­teville’s Wal­ton Arts Cen­ter, which is search­ing for a lo­ca­tion for a satel­lite per­form­ing-arts cen­ter in the two-county area.

The pres­i­dent of Ben­tonville Re­vi­tal­iza­tion Inc., a part­ner in the ho­tel project, is David Short, ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Form 990, a fi­nan­cial doc­u­ment re­quired for non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. Short is pres­i­dent of Ar­vest Bank of Ben­tonville, which was founded by Jim Wal­ton. The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 990 was com­piled by Ben­tonville­based Wal­ton En­ter­prises LLC.

Sarah Clark, a spokesman for the ho­tel project, said the Wal­ton fam­ily would not com­ment on its in­volve­ment with the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which de­scribes its mis­sion as pro­mot­ing “com­mu­nity devel­op­ment and com­bat­ing de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in down­town Ben­tonville.”

Nancy Leake, a board mem­ber of Ben­tonville Re­vi­tal­iza­tion, said in an e-mail state­ment that the or­ga­ni­za­tion has con­ducted stud­ies of the down­town area for sev­eral years. She would not say whether the Wal­ton fam­ily was in­volved.

Benton County prop­erty records show fam­ily mem­bers own tracts of land sur­round­ing the mu­seum site on the south end and around the down­town area. A sep­a­rate or­ga­ni­za­tion, called Cindy Springs LLC, owns 15 tracts near the Crys­tal Bridges site.

A fil­ing with the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice shows Cindy Springs, named for a stream that runs through the Crys­tal Bridges site, is man­aged by Richard Chap­man, vice pres­i­dent of Wal­ton-founded Ar­vest Bank. MORE CHANGE AFOOT The 21c Mu­seum Ho­tel, with 130 rooms start­ing at $190 a night, is de­signed to stand out among the re­gion’s of­fer­ings when it opens in 2012.

The space will host a mod­ern-art col­lec­tion, a spa and a res­tau­rant that serves lo­cally grown food.

Conde Nast read­ers in 2009 voted the Louisville ho­tel No. 1 in the United States.

The con­cept at­tracts fam­i­lies, high-end tourists and cor­po­rate vis­i­tors in­ter­ested in more than the typ­i­cal ho­tel room, said Wil­son, the ho­tel’s founder. The ho­tel in­cor­po­rates a touch of whimsy. Forty bright orange plas­tic pen­guins, part of its first art ex­hi­bi­tion, quickly be­came iconic of its style. Wil­son plans to com­mis­sion pen­guins from Italy’s Crack­ing Art Group in a dif­fer­ent color for the Ben­tonville lo­ca­tion. He also plans lo­ca­tions in Cincin­nati and Austin, Texas.

“ We’re tak­ing a big risk here,” he said. “Peo­ple thought our mu­seum wouldn’t work any­where, much less Louisville.”

And Ben­tonville is a much smaller tourism mar­ket.

The Arkansas Leg­is­la­ture pro­vided Crys­tal Bridges a spe­cial sales-tax ex­emp­tion on ma­te­ri­als and art­work, mo­ti­vated by the prom­ise that the high-pro­file project would de­liver out­side in­vestors.

Much of the pay­off for pub­lic com­mit­ment in the project will likely be large, but it is yet to be seen, Deck said.

“The real scope of what’s go­ing to hap­pen at Crys­tal Bridges is still an un­known and can al­ways change,” she said. “It’s hard to say how much devel­op­ment will hap­pen as a re­sult.”

Ed Clif­ford, pres­i­dent of the Ben­tonville-Bella Vista Cham­ber of Com­merce, said he knows of one large project, planned for Fayet­teville, that will form “a book­end for Crys­tal Bridges.” Clif­ford wouldn’t pro­vide spe­cific de­tails, cit­ing a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment he’d signed. The project isn’t funded by the Wal­ton fam­ily, he said.

The 21c Mu­seum Ho­tel, con­sid­ered a des­ti­na­tion on its own, al­ready has stirred up in­ter­est from out­side and re­vived plans for pre­vi­ously tabled projects, Clif­ford said.

“I think peo­ple are start­ing to get it,” he said.

It’s up to city and eco­nomic-devel­op­ment of­fi­cials to cap­ture the mo­men­tum of Crys­tal Bridges, Clif­ford said.

“I think we have a twoyear win­dow to cre­ate the per­cep­tion that there’s a lot of stuff around here that they need to book a room for.”

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