BENTONVILLE, Ark. — A French chef selling crepes from a food cart on an Arkansas city street may seem out of place, but business is very good for Crepes Paulette. It's about to get a lot better.
The wagon is parked at the head of a scenic path connecting Bentonville's town square with the new $150 million Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, labeled "breathtaking" by the chairman of the National Endowment for The Arts. Heading into a busy spring, the museum's serious collection already has drawn crowds exceeding expectations since November's debut.
Welcome to Boom Town USA, otherwise known as home base for Wal-Mart, the $258 billion company founded by the late Sam Walton. It's a community of 35,000 that has tripled in size over 20 years, built state-of-the-art municipal facilities to match its evolving demographic, boasts a thriving hospitality industry and still has cows grazing in pastures within the city limits.
"It's nice to have the world's largest retailer in your town," said Mayor Bob McCaslin, who moved here in 1996 as a Kraft Foods' rep to work with Wal-Mart and is living proof of his city's new order. "Our quality of life is off the charts for a community this size, and we're prepared for a transition in the next seven to 10 years. The next phase for us is going to be tourism."
Crystal Bridges will be the catalyst for molding Bentonville into a tourist destination just as Wal-Mart made the town a strong draw for businesses. Since opening in November, the museum has seen 180,000 visitors through mid-March. City-collected revenues from restaurants and lodging are up 19 percent and 6.2 percent over comparable dates last year.
Museum officials are braced for upward of 300,000 visitors this year, a figure that could grow as ambitious outreach programs and appeals as a family-friendly experience take root. "Art never played a role in Arkansas before," McCaslin said, "and this will change that."
Other area attractions are Pea Ridge National Military Park, site of one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River; the Walmart Visitor Center, in Walton's original store on the town square; the Museum of Native American History; and the Peel Mansion Museum & Historic Gardens.
Northwest Arkansas also is popular with golfers, especially the nearby Bella Vista community that's home to many retirees. The Ladies Professional Golf Association makes a regular summer tour stop in Rogers, adjacent to Bentonville.
Bentonville's own town square is an attraction, a throwback to days when Middle American county seats were vibrant and "for lease" signs nonexistent. The Benton County Courthouse occupies one side of the square, which is a lush, green space with a statue honoring Confederate veterans.
In addition to the Wal-Mart Visitors Center, the square includes busy restaurants, a children's educational toy shop and a bicycle store that also serves as an information center for 20 miles of trails busy with bikers and joggers. On most warm weekends there are concerts, festivals and a farmers market. A Ghiradelli Chocolate shop is a block away.
On Bentonville's drawing board are a 35,000-square-foot children's museum, and a performing-arts center is scheduled for the next three to five years. A new community center that will include an Olympic-sized swimming pool, ball fields, meeting rooms and theater is under construction.
The nearby 14-year-old Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, serviced by United, American and Delta, has connections to many major U.S. cities.
"Nobody growing up here could've dreamed things would turn out like this," said Monte Harris, a local historian whose book, "Images of America: Bentonville," charts the city's growth. She is a lifelong resident who spent her allowance on toys in Walton's original store in the 1950s. "In many ways, the town hasn't changed at all. It's still friendly and small."
Crystal Bridges is at the bottom of a ravine, a short walk from the square along a path lined with artwork and gardens. It's the dream of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, an avid art collector and, according to Forbes, the world's third richest woman.
The funding is so solid with endowments and sponsors that no admission is charged to see the museum's priceless collection of American art. Seemingly every important, familiar American artist is represented in the 50,000-square-foot facility, a list that includes Edward Curtis, Thomas Hart Benton, Frederic Remington, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell.
A New York Times critic said the museum is poised to make a solid contribution to U.S. culture, adding that it is "much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family's name."
The building was designed by Israeli-born Boston architect Moshe Safdie. The gleaming structure surrounds a small lake, allowing visitors startling reflections through the mostly glass walls. Outdoor plazas and terraces allow for basking in the sun.
The works are organized into Colonial, 19th century, Modern and Contemporary galleries, making it easy to navigate the premises. There are easily accessible book nooks where you can plop down and learn more about the artwork, and Family Sundays feature a drop-in studio, sketching sessions with instructors, short films and a gallery hunt.
"There's really some magic taking place here," said Paula Henry, who with husband Frederic has operated the Crepes Paulette cart for two years. "We always hire two extra people to help us as the weather warms up. This year we are going to have to hire a few more."