Home is Where the 'Mart is

Many, but not all, proud of local store that grew to No. 1


BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- For less than a day this month, a billboard denouncing the business practices of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. loomed a short distance from the plain and frugal headquarters here of the world's largest retailer.

Then in a blink, the sign, paid for by organized labor, was painted over.

The swift whitewash may be a testament to the affinity people here have for the homegrown giant that faces animosity over its labor practices and retail dominance elsewhere, but not here.

While some communities around the country fight to prevent the giant retailer from moving in, the northwest corner of Arkansas - where Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 and site of the company's annual meeting this month that drew 15,000 shareholders and featured performances by Beyonce and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks - is unabashedly Wal-Mart Nation.

It is probably only natural for a community to have an affinity for a homegrown brand, like Atlanta and Coca-Cola or Baltimore and McCormick. And in a region with 400,000 people spread across four counties, a company as large as Wal-Mart likely has touched just about everyone's life.

"It's a huge net positive for many of these small communities because they didn't have access to a wide variety of goods and services before," said Ed Cox, a professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University. "Nobody else entered the small market, and they did. It really had a positive impact on their standard of living."

From Maryland to California, legislators and community groups have pressed the company to provide better health insurance for its workers or to stay away entirely. Not so in Bentonville, where the company is credited with revitalizing communities and bringing shopping opportunities to rural areas other retailers ignored.

"I think people here have a little bit more of a positive view," said Ed Clifford, president and chief executive officer of the Bentonville/Belle Vista Chamber of Commerce.

A former Wal-Mart buyer, he recalls Bentonville had only one blinking traffic signal when he moved to town in 1984. "A lot has been done. It's pretty hard to say anything bad about the Walton family."

Not everyone in town is a cheerleader for the company. Some argue that its dominance may cause some people to keep quiet about misgivings about the retailer. Suburban sprawl, crowded schools, rising real estate costs and the loss of small-town culture are among the topics that generate grumbling.

"You're likely to have the folks that are the true believers in Arkansas, but that doesn't mean that ... they [are] willing to turn a blind eye to the business practices that go against their values," said Jeff Collins, director of the center for business and economic research at the University of Arkansas in neighboring Fayetteville.

Rex Lee moved to Bentonville from Florida because he heard the job market was good and the cost of living reasonable. But Lee, who works for a plastics plant, said that as more people arrive, the cost of everything seems to be rising.

"It's making it harder for working-class people," Lee said.

"I'm pretty close to down the middle the way I think about Wal-Mart, but more and more I'm leaning to it being bad."

The heart of the city, where a courthouse fronts an old-fashioned town square and a statue of a Confederate soldier looms large, is a glimpse into the quaint past of a Southern town, once like any other in Middle America.

But Bentonville and the surrounding towns have been transformed in recent years. A few minutes from the outskirts of town is a gated community with million-dollar mansions. Luxury car dealerships - Mercedes and BMW - have opened. Gleaming shopping centers have replaced farm fields.

"I graduated high school in 1961, and most of my classmates left," Don Over- street recalled of the Bentonville of his youth. His family has owned Overstreet's Jewelry downtown since 1948. "There wasn't anything to keep young people here."

Although he acknowledges that Wal-Mart grabbed some of the sales his family once had in things such as electric razors, clock radios and reading glasses, Overstreet changed the direction of his business to sell more upscale jewelry.

"The reality of being in business near Wal-Mart is you adapt, and we adapted," Overstreet said.

In the past five years, the population of Bentonville has doubled. The city builds a new elementary school every seven months. An unprecedented residential construction boom creates about 560 jobs a month in Bentonville and surrounding cities, according to local business officials. Some 16,000 residential lots and 3 million square feet of commercial space are being developed. An acre of farmland that once sold for $500 now goes for $50,000.

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