Tuesday, 30 October 2012
North-West Arkansas Preconceptions
Something of a packed day today including some serious pre-conceptions squashed, a mini-road-trip and me being presented the Freedom of the City of Bentonville...
As per yesterday's brief update I've had most of my original ideas about this part of the country challenged if not totally blown away today. One of my work colleagues told me before I left the UK that for a while he was planning to move here for work and was really looking forward to it. I looked at him a bit strangely and was somewhat sceptical. Well, I'd probably join him on the plane if given the chance now - seriously. Well, maybe I'd hold out a little longer for the Chicago option but this is a strong second!
I met with three people from Bentonville City Council - Troy Galloway, the Director of Community Development, Mike Churchwell who heads up Transport and finally Mayor Bob McCaslin.
A few thoughts and things learnt;
- Bentonville downtown is brilliant - could almost be a facsimile of a 1930s small-town America used for a film set but it's a living and breathing city centre mixed-use location - shops (including what looks like a great bike shop. I've not allowed myself to go in - there's only so far I can stretch my baggage allowance on flights...), restaurants, bars and offices. I note the irony that this is exactly what opponents of WalMart say their presence destroys but here it is, in their own home-town. A few pics inc one of the original WalMart (a five-and-dime store that's now a museum);
- I knew that WalMart either explicitly or otherwise encourage their suppliers (CocaCola, P&G, Unilever, Kraft, Nestle etc etc) to have an office here but I didn't know how big they were (up to 400 people) nor now many companies have in fact co-located in the Bentonville/Rogers/Fayetteville/Springdale are: around 1400 in total! There are some interesting parallels here with Boeing's supplier base in Seattle and how venture capital and legal firms have strong presences in Silicon Valley.
-The City's daytime population pretty much doubles with the commuter influx into the City from surrounding locations but the focus at the moment has been to manage that traffic through more road building rather than any attempt to move people out of their cars. The team know that this is next but haven't yet been able to find a way to ease people out of their cars and into public transit in quite the way we've been able to do it in Nottingham and Europe more generally.
- The City's relationship with WalMart is generally very strong but hasn't always been so - back in 2005 the company was working with central government to secure improvements to a particular road and had secured 80% of the funding - the remaining 20% to come from the City. Unfortunately no-one had thought to engage with the team at the Council which led to some red faces and hasty rejigging of budgets...
- The Mayor spoke very passionately and from a position of knowledge (he headed up a Bentonville team for Kraft for many years) of the good things that WalMart do and how they operate in an ethical way. I directly asked if WalMart put people out of business and he said that wasn't the case. Like many people I've read books like 'The WalMart Effect' and been sceptical about the value that big-box retailers bring to the consumer landscape so it was great to be challenged in a knowledgeable way on those views.
- The Mayor presented me with the Key to Bentonville - as per the photo at the top of this post to celebrate my visit. This was obviously a huge surprise and a great honour.
There's loads more info and detail that I captured but that'll do for now - safe to say that I'm hugely looking forward to my next few days here in NWA!
PS - managed to find some beer at the brilliantly named County Line Liquor today so I'm back in the game on that front. I'm in Benton County as indicated on this map so there are a number of options around but none that are hugely close! I learnt today that there's a ballot inititive (referendum) to make the county 'wet' at next week's vote.
PPS - longtime readers will be excited to hear that I got a haircut today - a snip (haha!) at $13.