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Back in the halcyon days following the November 2011 opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I stated that Bentonville could become "Aspen without the snow."

It could be a place where people with means would visit and spend lots of money. Some might buy second homes so they could experience the art, food and other cultural happenings on a regular basis.

To some extent, that transformation is occurring seven years later. The 21c Museum Hotel remains one of the finest in the country. The Bentonville food scene continues to expand, attracting the attention of foodies across the country.

We've come a long way from an era when the likes of Dogpatch and Booger Hollow defined tourism in the Arkansas Ozarks. Sophisticated travelers now demand authentic experiences. And what's more authentic in Arkansas than outdoors activities that take advantage of the state's beautiful landscape?

The Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville is investing millions of dollars to make Arkansas the mountain biking capital of the country. It's an important step as a poor state tries to better monetize its natural attributes. Increased opportunities for fishing, hiking, hunting and bird-watching also must be part of that mix.

I was drawn recently to a quote by Wright Thompson, a Clarksdale, Miss., native who is among my favorite writers. Thompson has teamed up with John T. Edge of Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss for an SEC Network television program called TrueSouth. Thompson is the executive producer; Edge is the host. The two men live within a few blocks of each other in Oxford, Miss. The program takes them to cities across the region to discuss how food, football and Southern culture are intertwined.

In an interview earlier this year, Thompson talked about how the South is portrayed in the media.

"You often see the South described, written about and talked about on television, but very rarely with any accuracy," he said. "Sometimes it's people just misunderstanding what's going on, and other times you have this Paula Deen-ification of the region. ... I look at my grandmother, who is the single most Southern person I've ever met, and I just think that she would never have a Styrofoam cup that says, 'Hey, y'all!' It's important to me to tell honest, true stories about the South that we actually live in, that we see every day in our lives."

Thompson was preaching to the choir. I strive in every column to write about the real Arkansas, not some outsider's image of what Arkansas should be. As a native Arkansan, I cringe when a magazine editor inserts a gratuitous "y'all" into a story in a strained attempt to seem more Southern. I also cringe when a New England-raised voice talent drops the final 'g' in the television ad as he declares, "Let's go huntin'!" I refer to this as the faux redneck syndrome.

Thanks to the Waltons' money and good taste, Bentonville isn't going to become Branson. Even without Walton resources, people across Arkansas can ask themselves this question: How do we focus on that which is authentic?

Traditional resorts such as Hot Springs and Eureka Springs have tremendous potential because they're authentic. They have colorful histories along with old hotels and classic downtown buildings just begging for the right developers to come along and invest some funds. These faded resort towns are real, unlike the highway sprawl of hokey music shows, cut-rate motels and cheap buffets that characterize a place such as Branson.

It was a rainy Friday afternoon in late October when I visited in downtown Bentonville with Jeremy Pate of the Walton Family Foundation and NWA Trailblazers executive director Erin Rushing. Pate is a former senior development services director for the city of Fayetteville. Rushing, who grew up on a cattle farm in north Arkansas and studied landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, designs trails. I had asked them to tell me about Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, which was dedicated in September and is about five minutes from downtown Bentonville.

With 250 miles of natural-surface trails, northwest Arkansas is receiving worldwide attention for its mountain biking opportunities.

In the six months prior to the Coler Mountain dedication, the Walton Family Foundation helped fund 47 miles of natural-surface trails at Bella Vista, 10 miles of trails on Fitzgerald Mountain in Springdale, and the construction of Runway Bike Park at Jones Center in Springdale. Runway, known as a pump track, hosted the 2018 Red Bull World Championship.

"You can leave one of the bars or restaurants in downtown Bentonville, hop on your bike and be on Coler Mountain in five minutes," Pate says. "You can't do that in many other downtowns across the country."

Rushing says it's "like having a national park right in the middle of Bentonville. I go to the parking areas and see license plates from all over the country."

The foundation bought the 300-acre property in pieces, then deeded it to the NWA Trailblazers. There are now 16 miles of trails for mountain biking. There are also almost two miles of paved trails that will connect to the Razorback Regional Greenway trail system. Coler will have 25 tent camping sites along with hammock stands. Two barns on the grounds are being renovated for small group events, yoga sessions and more.

Coler Creek and its surrounding wetlands will be restored. Coler Mountain also will have a cafe with a scenic overlook, pavilions and a hillside building at the intersection of the preserve's trails that will be known as The Berm. The four trailheads will have parking, restrooms and bike wash stations.

For Bentonville truly to become Aspen without the snow, additional activities must be added to the mix. Think along these lines: Day trips to Eureka Springs for shopping, spa visits and historic tours; fly-fishing outings to the Beaver tailwaters of the White River and perhaps as far away as the waters below Bull Shoals Dam; hiking excursions in the surrounding Ozark Mountains; guided road trips down the Pig Trail (Arkansas 23) that will end in the Arkansas wine country.

With wise investment, all of these activities have the potential to offer world-class yet authentic experiences for visitors. Those visitors might eventually become taxpaying residents.

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

Editorial on 12/30/2018

Print Headline: REX NELSON: An authentic Arkansas

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