Corporate America and the Power of Place

By Joe Stumpe

To understand why cities like Little Rock pursue corporate headquarters like Amazon, look no further than Bentonville and El Dorado. Walmart in Bentonville and Murphy Oil Co. in El Dorado aren’t new to those cities—on the contrary, both are homegrown—but these companies are still very much in the process of physically redesigning the towns.

Walmart has exerted such a profound influence on Bentonville for so long that it seems like nothing else could be said about the relationship. Then the company announced last fall that it was building a new, unified headquarters on 300 acres immediately south and east of downtown Bentonville.

“It will be transformative. It’s a game-changer,” Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said. While no firm price tag or designs for the new headquarters have been released, expectations are that it will be a significant upgrade of current Walmart headquarters, for which utilitarian would be a kind description. “It will be grand,” McCaslin predicted.

In El Dorado, meanwhile, the Murphy Foundation is a prime mover behind the creation of the Murphy Arts District, a revitalization of eight downtown blocks. A farm-to-table restaurant, 2,000-seat music hall, amphitheater capable of holding 8,000 people and the largest playscape for hundreds of miles are up and running, with more to come in an effort with a total projected price tag of $100 million.

“This is the most transformative thing that I’ve ever been involved with,” said MAD executive director Terry Stewart, whose previous jobs include running Marvel Comics and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “It really affects a lot of people’s lives in a town. It’s unusual to be part of that.”

Arkansas is home to a couple dozen more sizeable corporate headquarters, including Stephens, Inc. and Baptist Health in Little Rock. Arkansas’s capital joined the long list of cities pursuing Amazon headquarters HQ2—which with 50,000 jobs would have dwarfed any other headquarters in the state —before withdrawing with a much-publicized “Dear Amazon” letter last October. The letter and accompanying PR campaign did exactly what it was designed to do: let other corporations know that Little Rock, while maybe not big enough for Amazon, could serve as a new home for others.

Corporations headquartered in several other Arkansas cities are also engaged in efforts to make brick-and-mortar changes to their hometowns, either through new construction or re-use of existing structures. In downtown Fort Smith, a subsidiary of Hanna Oil bought the vacant 40,000-square-foot former Shipley Baking Company building, and is marketing it to potential tenants as “The Bakery District.” In Pine Bluff, Simmons First National Bank two years ago donated $2 million to Go Forward Pine Bluff—a strategic planning effort which could, if successful, lead to infrastructure improvements. However, an accompanying proposal by Simmons to establish a $12 million pool for loans to improve commercial, residential and rental properties in Pine Bluff apparently went nowhere.

Northwest Arkansas is the only part of the state where three Fortune 500 companies—Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt—are headquartered, the latter two in Springdale and Lowell, respectively.

 “They’re transformative because they allow cities to truly plan for the future and how they’re going to embrace the top talent that those corporations bring in,” Graham Cobb, president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “For Northwest Arkansas, that means how do we plan our cities and our region to serve the workforce of the future? We know that 34 people move to Northwest Arkansas every day. Now you see them moving here from the coast without a car. How do we plan for that? How do we talk about experiences and cultures that millennials and the creative class want so badly?

“That’s one of the reason you see this focus on renewed downtowns, on planned streets that are programmed for pedestrians” and similar features.

Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s founding of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was another “game changer” for the region, McCaslin noted. But the corporate headquarters, through the jobs and economic substructure they create, remake the physical on a regular basis. Within a half-mile of his office in City Hall, McCaslin said, “You can probably find a hundred construction activities related to the fact that there are jobs here.”

Stewart noted that El Dorado houses headquarters for two Fortune 500 companies—Murphy Oil and Murphy USA—and actually had a third until the recent merger of Deltic Timber with Potlatch, which he called “unusual for a town of 19,000 in the middle of nowhere.” While that hasn’t created the boomtown-like conditions of Northwest Arkansas, MAD is a step in that direction, with a hotel and art gallery coming in the project’s next phase, and other developers working to improve the city’s housing stock.