Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Museum-tied hotel has Walton stamp

Crystal Bridges draws few outsiders

- 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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