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story.lead_photo.caption Blake Woolsey, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority Board of Directors chairwoman, leads participants Wednesday in a group discussion to help create a sense of place for the terminal.

BENTONVILLE — Community leaders and travelers want the renovated Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport to reflect the area’s growing art scene and variety of recreational activities.

Officials made giving the airport an identity that’s personally meaningful to travelers the focus of a special meeting Wednesday.

About 38 community leaders, business professionals and airport staff and board members gathered for the three-hour meeting to help start the discussion of how the airport can develop its own sense of place.

Blake Woolsey, the Airport Board’s chairwoman, said it’s the right time to start the discussion of how the airport’s identity will take shape.

“We like to be part of something that’s successful and is growing, and we all recognize that Northwest Arkansas is very much that place,” she said, adding that she wants airport visitors to feel the same way about the region.

Representatives of architectural firm Hight Jackson Associates presented purely conceptual renderings of what the airport terminal could look like with an expanded second floor, outdoor areas and building modifications.

The renderings were designed to spark meeting participants’ creativity and to help them envision the terminal as a blank canvas for creating that sense of place.

Participants entered into an open discussion following the presentation, sharing items and ideas they thought helped make them feel at home in Northwest Arkansas.

“I brought an asparagus that I picked from my garden this morning,” said Sarah Goforth, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Arkansas.

“It represents a connection to the land,” she said, explaining Northwest Arkansas means having the space in her life to do the things she’s always dreamed of.

Goforth also led participants in an exercise on listening to customers by having them break into groups of three or four to talk to travelers waiting for flights about their experience at the airport.

A concept image of the new terminal front. Courtesy Hight Jackson Associates.

There can sometimes be a disparity between what organizations think customers want and the reality of what they need, she said, adding there likewise can be an imbalance concerning what people say and do versus what they think and feel about a space.

Groups spent about 20 minutes in the terminal speaking with travelers to get a read on what sense of place they felt at the airport.

Alisa Fox of Fayetteville works in human resources for Walmart and travels through the airport two to three times a month.

“It’s a nice airport,” she said, adding she would like to see more information on what’s happening outside the airport at places such as Crystal Bridges, on bike trails and the Razorback Greenway.

The groups shared the feedback from travelers with the larger group.

Comments included some similar and very contrasting opinions on topics such as spotlighting local food and activities, advertising, signs, baggage wait times and airline lounges. The most common topic, though, was the desire to have more art featured in the terminal.

“We shouldn’t be talking about art, we should be showing top-quality art at the airport,” said Lieven Bertels, The Momentary director. The Momentary is an art and performance venue in Bentonville developed by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and expected to be complete in 2020.

Aaron Burkes, the airport’s chief executive officer, said officials will do their best to incorporate the feedback into the final plan of the airport.

“A lot of this is not necessarily related to the building itself, but we want to make sure the building will accommodate all of these different things,” he said.

Feedback on the terminal’s sense of place is still being gathered by staff members through speaking engagements with community service organizations and selective forums for vendors and businesses, he said. There are no plans yet for receiving feedback from the general public.

“There’s going to be strategic planning that will be going on that will start in the summertime,” Woolsey said. “We will also be doing due diligence in other research. This is one piece of many pieces.”

Mary Jordan may be reached by email at .

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