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story.lead_photo.caption Photo By Ben Goff - Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers Arkansas.

Wal-Mart's fingerprint is all over Northwest Arkansas' growing economy. That's not surprising when the world's largest company calls Bentonville home.

But the Walton family's influence reaches far beyond the bounds of the business world, touching on many aspects of the region's cultural offerings. The bulk of donations flow through the Walton Family Foundation, and additional resources come from the Walmart Foundation and directly from family members.

Foundation gifts

The Walton Family Foundation contributed $27 million to Northwest Arkansas institutions in 2014. The foundation donated another $7.5 million to Arkansas education, including some area schools.

Here are the Northwest Arkansas grants:

Northwest Arkansas

Arkansas Department of Education $29,000

Beaver Watershed Alliance $123,998

Bella Vista Foundation $75,000

Benton County School of the Arts $732,219

Bentonville Bella Vista Trailblazers Association Inc. $934,923

Bentonville Child Care and Development Center $49,849

Bicycle Coalition of the Ozarks $145,767

Catholic Diocese of Little Rock $98,000

Amazeum $5,374,080

Cisneros Center for New Americans $50,000

City of Bentonville $2,053,304

City of Fayetteville $1,855,185

City of Rogers $2,703,401

City of Springdale $400,000

City of Siloam Springs $638,510

Credit Counseling of Arkansas Inc. $216,217

Downtown Bentonville Inc. $160,000

Endeavor Foundation $3,000,000

Fayetteville Public Education Foundation Inc. $134,850

Haas Hall Academy $500,000

Hispanic Scholarship Fund $152,500

Illinois River Watershed Partnership $200,000

Jones Trust $1,000,000

KIPP Delta Public Schools $400,000

Northwest Arkansas Community Creative Center $91,840

Northwest Arkansas Council Foundation $1,699,337

Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission $306,667

Ozark Montessori Academy $220,000

Rogers New Technology High $249,180

Rogers Public Schools $40,000

Springdale Public Schools $262,000

Symphony Orchestra of Northwest Arkansas $136,293

The Peel Compton Foundation $220,000

Theatre Squared $430,000

Tricycle Theatre For Youth $56,494

Walton Arts Center Inc. $1,600,000

Watershed Conservation Resource Center $100,000

Winrock International $634,613

Northwest Arkansas Total $27,073,227

Regional leaders

Several Northwest Arkansas leading business families made contributions to the region last year:

• John Brown University support — The Simmons family last year donated $5 million toward a renovation project for the Walton Lifetime Health Complex at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. The family and the Walton Family Foundation also helped fund a $170,000 5-mile mountain bike trail in Siloam Springs.

• Walton Arts Center expansion — The Walton Family Foundation’s announced a $5 million challenge grant in March for the $23 million campaign for the Fayetteville center.

• Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences — John Tyson announced in March a $5 million gift from Tyson Foods Inc. and the Tyson family to support a $16.3 million Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences.

• Razorback Regional Greenway — The 37-mile trail opened in May and received more than $50 million from the Walton Family Foundation for trail-related projects over the past 15 years.

• New independent school — The Walton Family Foundation announced in July that it will support the development of a new independent school in Bentonville.

• Brightwater Culinary Institute — The Walton Family Foundation in August announced it would provide $15 million to the Northwest Arkansas Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Program.

• Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program — The Walton Family Foundation in September announced its new design program, which supports the highest level of design for future public building spaces in Benton and Washington counties.

• Arkansas Nature Center — The J.B. Hunt Family announced in November that it would provide $5 million for a proposed $15 million J.B. Hunt Family Northwest Arkansas Nature Center in Springdale.


The Waltons are far from the only family investing in improving the area's quality of life score. Be it former executives for the massive retailer or funds associated with one of the region's other dominant companies, the region reaps the benefits of business success.

Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the business approach of working hard and treating people fairly ends with rewards. The great local businessmen who took this tact include names such as Walton, Tyson, Simmons and Hunt, he said.

"That is our culture and what makes Northwest Arkansas successful," Malone said. "We're incredibly fortunate that not only did they set the culture, they invested the time and resources to make the community better."

The council is a private, nonprofit organization collaborating with business and civic leaders to work on regional economic development, community vitality, educational excellence and infrastructure. Heads of the area's largest companies -- Sam Walton, Don Tyson and Johnnie Bryan Hunt -- started the council in 1990 and Walton's daughter, Alice, was the group's first leader.

Malone said those early leaders saw huge potential in Northwest Arkansas, not just for their own businesses but for the entire community. Walton family members continue to carry that vision on through the Walton Family Foundation.

The foundations

The foundation has assets of $2.6 billion and distributed $375 million in grants last year. It started in 1987; the Home Region Program, which includes Northwest Arkansas and the Delta Region of Arkansas and Mississippi, started in 2008. The foundation contributed nearly $114 million in the Home Region Program since its inception, including $27 million to Northwest Arkansas in 2014.

The Foundation Center reports there were 42,252 family foundations nationwide in 2013 with assets of $363 billion and contributing nearly $24 billion. The Walton Family Foundation ranked third in giving, behind only the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Susan Thompson Buffett foundations.

The Walton Family Foundation also contributes to the region by conducting studies that help it determine where to focus its attention and share that information with community groups, said Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director. The group does quality of life surveys every few years, has examined trail use and late last year commissioned a report examining cultural needs and gaps in the region.

"It's relevant to everyone. There are so many organizations in this region trying to improve quality of life in many ways," she said. "We think there is benefit to providing that information to other entities who are working on similar goals."

Minkel said the foundation's investments in quality of life initiatives have been happening for decades, well before the creation of the home region program.

The community also benefits from the Wal-Mart Foundation, which the Foundation Center ranks third in the country for giving by corporation organizations. The Wal-Mart Foundation made almost $183 million in contributions in 2013.

Aaron Mullins, Wal-Mart spokesman, said the foundation locally has three strategic focus areas: providing greater access to hunger relief and nutrition services; increasing health care access for low-income people, particularly oral and front-line health care; and enhancing quality of life by increasing access to arts and recreational programs and facilities, and supporting regional planning.

"We consider it our responsibility to make a positive impact in the communities we serve," Mullins said. "Whether it's through the grants we provide to the thousands of organizations that share our mission or through the inspiring volunteer efforts of Walmart associates, we are passionate about helping the Northwest Arkansas community live better."

Minkel said the boards have overlapping board members that help them indirectly work together.

Family changes

Sam Walton died in 1992 and his wife, Helen, died in 2007, but the work of the foundation continues on through their children and now grandchildren. The younger generation's passions have helped shape the group's focus.

"You see that over and over with any foundation. As the children and grandchildren become the trustees, you will see priorities change," said Mary Kennedy, CEO of Kansas City-based Mid-America Arts Alliance. "I think it's great when older family members are there to mentor and help the younger generation understand their fiduciary responsibilities."

The foundation shrunk its board of directors from 22 to five members late last month and now includes Rob Walton and his children, Carrie Walton Penner and Ben Walton; Alice Walton; and Steuart Walton, son of Jim Walton. Penner is chairwoman.

Steuart Walton and his brother, Tom, have a passion for the outdoors and mountain biking, helping spur interest in the area's trails. The Walton Family Foundation pledged $15 million to help fund the Razorback Regional Greenway, a $38 million, 36-mile trail that snakes through Benton and Washington counties.

Tom Walton is the managing principal of RopeSwing, a Bentonville-based hospitality company, and his focus on culinary culture helped prompt the foundation to help reshape Northwest Arkansas Community College's culinary program. The more than $15 million the group is kicking into the program includes $8.4 million to redevelop a portion of the former Tyson Foods plant near Bentonville's square, $2.1 million for operations and curriculum development and $4.6 million to furniture, fixtures and equipment for the new site.

Tom Walton was honored earlier this month during the Governor's Conference on Tourism held in Springdale with the Tourism Person of the Year Award. Minkel called him one of the visionaries behind the foundation's Home Region Program.

The brothers also helped fund the campaign to legalize retail liquor sales in Benton County in 2012.

Penner is focused on education research, helping the foundation focus nationally on education.

Alice Walton's love of art is one of the foundation's most internationally visible contributions -- Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The museum

"Crystal Bridges is a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself in the arts world," Minkel said. "But I would say locally, when you think about the impact it had on downtown Bentonville, it can't be overstated."

She said the museum's 2011 opening is having the same effect on downtown Bentonville that the Walton Arts Center had on Dickson Street after it opened in 1992.

"The effect is exponentially so because the museum is pulling in people nationally and internationally," she said. "All of a sudden you are attracting a different population to the area who are patronizing all the local businesses here and creating opportunities for new businesses. Great economic development opportunities have been created by arts organizations."

Crystal Bridges was founded by the Walton Family Foundation in 2005 as an independent, nonprofit charitable organization. The foundation announced three endowments for the museum in 2011: $350 million for operations, $235 million for acquisitions and $125 million for future improvements and maintenance.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. established an endowment to sponsor free general public admission.

Sandy Edwards, deputy director of museum relations, said 2.3 million visitors have crossed the museum's threshold since the opening in 2011, including 74,000 school children. Access and inclusion are key to the museum's mission, she said.

"It's not just a sense of being welcome at the museum, but guests should feel they can get the information they want or desire," she said. "We really do take it seriously that all are welcome, and part of it is making them feel like they belong here."

Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville, said the growth in cultural options in town helps visitors find more reasons than just the museum to stop and stay. It's also given residents a boost.

"We're becoming better people in the community because of the amenities we have. I think we've built this community pride around our city," she said.

The arts center

Bootsie Ackerman said that is also what she saw after the Walton Arts Center opened on Dickson Street nearly 24 years ago. She was executive director of the Downtown/Dickson Enhancement Project and spent about 10 years starting in the late 1980s on improving the town's entertainment district.

Ackerman said Dickson Street was dilapidated and a bit dangerous when the art center opened.

"The significance of locating the Walton Arts Center where they put it was brilliant. It did serve as a catalyst and private investment dollars started flowing," she said.

Minkel said the Walton Arts Center was the foundation's first big cultural investment and was a joint project with the city and University of Arkansas.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan said the city is about to see another boost as the center nears the end of a $23 million expansion. The Walton Family Foundation chipped in $5 million.

"You can't really get where you need to go unless someone helps you. The Walton family has certainly been a big help to this city," he said.

Peter Lane, president and CEO of the Walton Arts Center, said Walton matriarch Helen Walton's desire to find a home for the regional orchestra was the catalyst for the center, and the family's role has continued to grow over the past decade.

The $5 million challenge grant required the center to raise $3 for every $1 it would donate.

"It allowed us to reach out to each other and say, 'This is very important and we need your help,'" he said. "They were in a position to make a difference on our renovation and catapulted other people to see it was important too."

Sense of place

A key point of that vision is creating a sense of place by making connections, be it the Razorback Regional Greenway running through the area or arts programs sparking investments, said Minkel.

She pointed to the foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program for furthering that mission. The program is meant to promote the highest level of design in the development of future public buildings and spaces across Benton and Washington counties. Firms from across the country were selected last year for the program's first round, and three local organizations are benefiting from the designs. The 2015 grantees were TheatreSquared, Rogers Historical Museum and Helen Walton Children's Enrichment Center.

One of the things Minkel said they were hearing from community members was a desire for sophisticated downtown spaces with multiple cultural offerings. TheatreSquared will be moving into a new, larger theater near the Walton Arts Center.

TheatreSquared is a year-round professional theater operating out of the 175-seat theater in the Walton Arts Center's Nadine Baum Studios. Its space will grow from 3,996 square feet to nearly 51,000 square feet. The new space is slated to be open by the fall of 2019.

Interest in TheatreSquared has continually grown over its 10-year existence, and Executive Director Martin Miller called a $275,000 Walton Family Foundation grant in 2011 transformative.

"It helped us fund a capacity building program we had on the books for years but couldn't achieve," he said.

Its national profile continued growing as it received the three-year, $1.03 million design grant.

"I don't think our ambition has changed or shifted the focus on the work, but every year we have been able to support it better," Miller said. "The Walton Family Foundation is a national foundation with a great entrepreneurial energy. They test things, they are open to new ideas, they change and are open. It's exciting."

NW News on 03/27/2016

Print Headline: Walton family influence reaches beyond business

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