“When people think of Fayetteville, Arkansas,” says Mayor Dan Coody, “they think of quality of life.” They also think of Wal-Mart. Not only is the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville the home for Wal-Mart’s Annual Shareholder’s Meeting in Bud Walton Arena every June, this city of 68,000 people is also home, since 1992, to the Walton Arts Center. Fayetteville, perhaps second only to Bentonville, Arkansas, has the DNA of the Walton Family everywhere. Mayor Coody admits this. In his 2008 State of the City address, the Mayor referred to Fayetteville’s “essential building blocks.” “The cornerstone is Fayetteville’s proximity to Wal-Mart,” Coody said. “The power of Wal-Mart and their leadership in the private sector for sustainability is, in my opinion, the single greatest factor in the changing mindset of business in the global environmental movement.” Fayetteville is a city of paradox. It has two, sprawling Wal-Mart supercenters, one Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, and a total of ten Wal-Mart stores with twenty miles. Yet the city boasts of being recognized as a national leader for cities its size in the movement for a cleaner, more efficient, more sustainable community, has hired a “Sustainability Coordinator,” and economically wants to diversify its tax base and secure what the Mayor calls “the coming green collar, clean tech economy.” What has happened to Fayetteville is that the city has historically depended on the sales tax for its well-being. This past year, the city’s sales tax collections took a dive — because of more retail development in nearby Rogers and Bentonville, Arkansas — the birthplace of the Wal-Mart empire. These nearby communities have grown so dramatically that they now warrant their own shopping area, and sales that migrated to Fayetteville, now stay in Rogers and Bentonville. “Our almost total reliance on sales tax for the last decade and a half worked fine until the inevitable happened,” the Mayor explains, “and the shoppers from up north ended their subsidy to Fayetteville.” One of the city’s main goals now is to land the Walton Arts Center’s planned 2,500 seat hall. “We have to be proactive and let them know exactly what we are willing to do to make sure that new facility is built in Fayetteville,” the Mayor says. “The Walton Arts Center is an important feature of our economy, a hallmark of this community, and we have to be aggressive in our efforts to keep it here.” Given this as a backdrop, how likely is it that Fayetteville would do anything to upset the Walton family? Yet the city’s Planning Commission, on a split vote, decided this week that another proposed Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market does not fit in with the mixed-used residential/commercial zoning where it is proposed. The Wal-Mart proposal for the west side of Fayetteville needed 5 votes, but two Commissioners didn’t show up, 2 recused themselves because of conflicts of interest (one Commissioner’s law firm has represented Wal-Mart), and the only 1 Commissioner left to vote, voted “no.” “There’s a serious lack of cohesion throughout the project,” said the one Commissioner who voted. Planning Commissioners could not bring themselves to support the Neighborhood Market because of the amount of pavement in the site plan. Instead of a pedestrian-friendly store, all they saw was a huge parking lot. The developer, Forest Hills Partners, pleaded that the Neighborhood Market was the anchor for the project. “It’s very difficult to incorporate a 40,000 s.f. store into a development like this and still meet the economic requirements of that store,” a spokesman for Forest Hills told the Commission. According to the Arkansas Morning News, the project was submitted as a “Planned Zoning District,” which means it is designed just for this project. The development would have 600 housing units and 206,000 s.f. of commercial space. The developer was apparently asked if he wanted to table the vote until more Commissioners were present, but the developer requested a vote — and got it. Now it is expected that he, and his partner Wal-Mart, will simply move their papers over to the City Council for the final vote.
Is there anyone in Fayetteville who doesn’t believe this project will be approved? The City Council needs to remain on the good side of the Walton family. They can’t afford to jeopardize the future of the Walton Arts Center over some foolish neighborhood market. Perhaps Forest Hills has read the script of how this turns out, and didn’t want to waste any more time with the Planning Commission than necessary. Better to take their case right to Mayor Coody, who has described proximity to Wal-Mart as a key building block for the future of his city. There is no doubt that the project as proposed does not fit into Fayetteville’s sustainability theme, and the trade area is already saturated with Wal-Mart Stores. Readers are urged to email their comments to Mayor Coody at http://www.accessfayetteville.org/government/mayor/contact/index.cfm with the following message: “Mayor Coody, If Wal-Mart and Forest Hills appeals the decision of the Planning Commission over their west side Neighborhood Market proposal, I hope you will stand by your Commission. This huge project is not a sustainable design, and adds nothing to the quality of life in your city. It’s not clean, and it’s not green jobs. It was you, Mr. Mayor, who said: ‘There is more to a beautiful, livable city than just the hard infrastructure of pipes, concrete, and asphalt.’ There is nothing beautiful or livable about another Neighborhood Market. Don’t let your desire to curry favor with the Walton’s get in the way of upholding an important land use principle. This project is urban sprawl, not a tasteful, mixed use project. Say yes to Fayetteville, and no to Wal-Mart.”