REX NELSON: Quality of place

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

When speaking about the new approach to economic development, I sometimes use this line: "Ten years ago, I would have called you crazy if you had told me that craft breweries are an important part of the development puzzle. Now, I believe that to be true."

Breweries, restaurants, music venues, biking trails and the like add up to one thing: quality of place. Cities that want the best young talent must offer those types of amenities. People once moved to where the jobs were. Increasingly, young people now move to where they really want to live and either create a business or find a job once they get there.

I began thinking about this last week when I noticed on a social media feed that Yeyo's Mexican Grill is open for business in the 8th Street Market at Bentonville. Want to know why Bentonville is suddenly becoming one of the premier places to live and work in this part of the country? Spend some time at the 8th Street Market and you'll understand.

I did just that several months ago on a two-day trip to northwest Arkansas to hang out with urban consultant Daniel Hintz, the man I call "the City Whisperer." We visited with Rafael Rios, an Army veteran who's now on a first-name basis with every chef in the region. Rios has six siblings, and most of his large family moved from California to booming northwest Arkansas in the years before he retired from active duty.

"We were following my father's American dream," he said. His father, Hector, was nicknamed Yeyo at a young age. He would come to California from his native Mexico for several months each year and work as a migrant laborer. In 1989, the family was allowed to move to the United States with all seven children.

Rafael joined the Army at age 18. A stop at a convenience store in Bella Vista resulted in one family member picking up a real estate guide and realizing how cheap houses were in Arkansas, at least by California standards. Rafael's brother Roman was the first to come to Arkansas in 2006. Soon he had found homes for his parents and all of his siblings. The family began growing produce on seven acres near the community of Little Flock. It didn't take long for chefs in the region to determine that it was some of the best produce to be found anywhere.

"We work closely with all of the chefs," Rafael told us. "They tell us what they want us to grow for their menus, and we plant it."

A food truck later was added to the mix. Rafael said the food truck grossed $39,000 the first year.

"I was going to give it just one more year, and then the community embraced us," he said. "So now there's also a restaurant."

This story tells us a lot about what's going on in the Bentonville area. It's no accident that members of the Walton family are behind the RopeSwing Hospitality Group, which opened downtown Bentonville restaurants The Preacher's Son and the Pressroom and has an event venue known as Record. The 12,000-square-foot event center got its name because it's in the building that once housed the Benton County Daily Record.

The Waltons, you see, understand that places such as the 8th Street Market are a key part of the development equation. The RopeSwing businesses, by the way, are major customers for the produce grown by the Rios family. Staying local when possible is always encouraged in this corner of the state.

Want to attract the brightest minds to Bentonville? Entice them with language like this on the RopeSwing website: "RopeSwing concepts are nestled in the Arkansas Ozark Mountain region and surrounded by rolling hills, rivers, lakes and national forests. Whether taking lunch to ride downtown Bentonville's Slaughter Pen mountain bike trails, taking the day to wake surf Beaver Lake or canoeing the Buffalo National River, we spend our days exploring the backwoods with friends, family and other foodies."

That's not the type of language you typically read on the website of a company that operates restaurants. But it's part of selling a regional vision. The 8th Street Market was created when a 75,000-square-foot former Tyson Foods plant was transformed into a food hub with significant financial support from the Walton Family Foundation. Bike Rack Brewing Co. added a second location at the market in late 2016. The craft brewery, which opened its original location a few blocks away in 2014, has 7,000 square feet of indoor space and a 2,000-square-foot outdoor seating area.

The market's primary tenant is Brightwater, a culinary school that's quickly earning a national reputation. The Walton Family Foundation awarded a 2015 grant that allowed Brightwater to build its 27,500-square-foot space, hire additional faculty members, purchase the most advanced equipment available and develop a new curriculum.

Karen Minkel, the foundation's home region program director, said Brightwater already "has established itself as an indispensable educational asset for the region and as a destination for diehard foodies. The growth of Brightwater, from its modest roots as the culinary program of NorthWest Arkansas Community College to a holistic center of food learning and culture, began with a vision among local leaders to develop a comprehensive food strategy for one of America's fastest-growing regions. . . . Brightwater's planners wanted to train great chefs who understood cooking as art, culinary nutritionists and food entrepreneurs alike. They wanted to create an institute that used food as a tool for economic development."

There you have it: Food as a tool for economic development. Minkel went on to explain: "In a region known for the rise of multiple Fortune 500 companies and the creation of an American art museum in 100 acres of woods, Brightwater was intentionally modeled as a complement to these regional assets. Unprecedented growth and a flourishing arts scene have empowered a culinary movement that continues to inspire and raise our quality of life."

The leaders of northwest Arkansas think big. Karin Endy, a nationally known consultant who was part of the Brightwater planning team, put it best when she said: "Never in my life have I been part of a project where everyone has been empowered to think so creatively and so expansively."

------------v------------

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 02/04/2018