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I call him the City Whisperer. Daniel Hintz of Bentonville didn't set out to play that role, but he's helping drive what I consider the most encouraging trend in economic development in Arkansas these days. After years--often decades--of neglect, more and more Arkansas cities are rediscovering their historic downtowns.

Hintz and I are sitting in the Onyx Coffee location just off the square in downtown Bentonville, and he's talking excitedly about the transformation of Northwest Arkansas.

The region's growth is nothing new. It has been occurring for decades. During the 1980s, 1990s and even into the new century, however, much of that growth centered around faceless and sometimes tasteless subdivisions, office buildings and strip retail centers. For those from larger urban areas, it was a place you wanted to fly into, do your business with Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters and then fly out. It wasn't a place you wanted to bring your family on vacation. And it sure wasn't a place you wanted to move unless your job demanded it. One of the things that changed the equation was that the cities in the region began focusing again on downtowns that could provide a sense of history, continuity and place.

Hintz has been a part of that economic development revolution for more than a decade now. In May 2005, he went to work as the executive director of Fayetteville Downtown Partners. He was charged with helping strengthen a 327-acre downtown district. During his 29 months with the organization, the city began implementing a master plan for downtown, formed an arts district, created the Fayetteville Arts Council and began holding more public events around the downtown square.

In late 2007, Hintz moved up the road to Bentonville, where he served as the executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. for almost six years. During his tenure, more than $40 million was invested in downtown Bentonville. That number continues to grow.

"We're looking to move the growth we've seen in downtown Bentonville into other downtowns in the area," Hintz says. "We're finding the right balance between competition and cooperation. The key to what's going on in Northwest Arkansas is that we're constantly asking ourselves what's next."

The most exciting thing is that the downtown fever is spreading to other parts of the state. I've written extensively about the downtown renaissance of Little Rock, Hot Springs and Jonesboro. In south Arkansas, El Dorado is receiving national attention for its downtown revitalization efforts. But there also are things happening in smaller towns such as Magnolia, Arkadelphia, Batesville and Helena.

Hintz describes himself in an online profile as a "placemaker, certified experience economist, storyteller, urban explorer and culinary adventurer." In 2013, he formed his own company, the Velocity Group, to help cities identify what Hintz calls their "DNA of place" and then bring people, investments and ideas together. He notes that economic development efforts, which once focused on jobs, now must focus on ideas, talent and creating a quality of place that will attract smart young workers.

Hintz graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in film studies. In the dozen years between leaving college and taking the downtown Fayetteville job, his online profile says he "worked as a line cook up to sous chef to help feed my foodie soul; covered numerous local, national and international events as a freelance writer for several magazines and newspapers to feed my travel bug; co-founded a professional theater company to feed my artistic wife; developed and taught art-based curricula for art museums, theater companies and school districts to feed my teacher's heart; worked on multiple film and commercial sets to rationalize my film degree; worked construction in a foreign country to stretch my horizons."

That's not the résumé of the standard economic developer--the type of person who spends time concerned with water and sewer lines, electric rates, tax rebates, etc. It is, though, the face of economic development in the new Arkansas where those cities that succeed will be the ones that focus on quality public education, health care, race relations, downtown redevelopment, parks and other quality-of-life issues far more than they focus on industrial parks. Hintz points to Onyx Coffee as the kind of place that's "challenging the way people have done business in the past. They're instituting practices that could change a whole industry. Those are the kinds of businesses towns need."

Hintz, whose father was a journalist in Milwaukee, first came to Arkansas after his mother moved to Eureka Springs. He didn't want to live in a town that small, but the Fayetteville-to-Bentonville corridor intrigued him. Now he's doing work in several states. In a speech at Conway, he said towns with a strong sense of place have safety, selection, service and surprise. Safety is paramount so there are places people can walk and feel positive about. Selection means a town where one can find anything from a new sweater to a restaurant that satisfies food cravings. Service comes from responsive elected officials, ethical businesses and people who give back to their communities. And surprise is that constant sense of "what's going to happen next."

"People want to have a quality lifestyle, nice things," Hintz says. "If a place doesn't have that, it's harder to attract and keep talent."

Hintz has now taken on his biggest challenge to date--downtown Pine Bluff, a neighborhood filled in recent years with empty storefronts and crumbling buildings that blocked streets. The most common line I hear from people who see downtown Pine Bluff after several years away is this: "It looks like a bomb went off." Hintz is working with developer Tom Reilley's Pine Bluff Rising organization and believes what was once the regional center of southeast Arkansas still has potential. If anyone can create an attainable, sustainable vision for downtown Pine Bluff, it's the City Whisperer.

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

Editorial on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: The city whisperer

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