Home is Where the 'Mart is

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- For less than a day this month, a billboard denouncing the business practices of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. loomed a short distance from the plain and frugal headquarters here of the world's largest retailer.

Then in a blink, the sign, paid for by organized labor, was painted over.

The swift whitewash may be a testament to the affinity people here have for the homegrown giant that faces animosity over its labor practices and retail dominance elsewhere, but not here.

While some communities around the country fight to prevent the giant retailer from moving in, the northwest corner of Arkansas - where Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 and site of the company's annual meeting this month that drew 15,000 shareholders and featured performances by Beyonce and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks - is unabashedly Wal-Mart Nation.

It is probably only natural for a community to have an affinity for a homegrown brand, like Atlanta and Coca-Cola or Baltimore and McCormick. And in a region with 400,000 people spread across four counties, a company as large as Wal-Mart likely has touched just about everyone's life.

"It's a huge net positive for many of these small communities because they didn't have access to a wide variety of goods and services before," said Ed Cox, a professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University. "Nobody else entered the small market, and they did. It really had a positive impact on their standard of living."

From Maryland to California, legislators and community groups have pressed the company to provide better health insurance for its workers or to stay away entirely. Not so in Bentonville, where the company is credited with revitalizing communities and bringing shopping opportunities to rural areas other retailers ignored.

"I think people here have a little bit more of a positive view," said Ed Clifford, president and chief executive officer of the Bentonville/Belle Vista Chamber of Commerce.

A former Wal-Mart buyer, he recalls Bentonville had only one blinking traffic signal when he moved to town in 1984. "A lot has been done. It's pretty hard to say anything bad about the Walton family."

Not everyone in town is a cheerleader for the company. Some argue that its dominance may cause some people to keep quiet about misgivings about the retailer. Suburban sprawl, crowded schools, rising real estate costs and the loss of small-town culture are among the topics that generate grumbling.

"You're likely to have the folks that are the true believers in Arkansas, but that doesn't mean that ... they [are] willing to turn a blind eye to the business practices that go against their values," said Jeff Collins, director of the center for business and economic research at the University of Arkansas in neighboring Fayetteville.

Rex Lee moved to Bentonville from Florida because he heard the job market was good and the cost of living reasonable. But Lee, who works for a plastics plant, said that as more people arrive, the cost of everything seems to be rising.

"It's making it harder for working-class people," Lee said.

"I'm pretty close to down the middle the way I think about Wal-Mart, but more and more I'm leaning to it being bad."

The heart of the city, where a courthouse fronts an old-fashioned town square and a statue of a Confederate soldier looms large, is a glimpse into the quaint past of a Southern town, once like any other in Middle America.

But Bentonville and the surrounding towns have been transformed in recent years. A few minutes from the outskirts of town is a gated community with million-dollar mansions. Luxury car dealerships - Mercedes and BMW - have opened. Gleaming shopping centers have replaced farm fields.

"I graduated high school in 1961, and most of my classmates left," Don Over- street recalled of the Bentonville of his youth. His family has owned Overstreet's Jewelry downtown since 1948. "There wasn't anything to keep young people here."

Although he acknowledges that Wal-Mart grabbed some of the sales his family once had in things such as electric razors, clock radios and reading glasses, Overstreet changed the direction of his business to sell more upscale jewelry.

"The reality of being in business near Wal-Mart is you adapt, and we adapted," Overstreet said.

In the past five years, the population of Bentonville has doubled. The city builds a new elementary school every seven months. An unprecedented residential construction boom creates about 560 jobs a month in Bentonville and surrounding cities, according to local business officials. Some 16,000 residential lots and 3 million square feet of commercial space are being developed. An acre of farmland that once sold for $500 now goes for $50,000.

"Nobody else is opening that many doors of opportunity in the state," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told reporters during a media conference for which the company was host this year. The governor is unapologetically a frequent booster for the company. With an average hourly wage of $9.64 and 46,000 employees, Wal-Mart is the state's largest employer after government.

More than 15 years ago, Procter & Gamble Co. opened an office in Fayetteville specifically to improve its vendor relationship with Wal-Mart, launching a wave of companies moving to the area. Today, about 1,200 companies have offices in town that indirectly or directly do business with Wal-Mart, according to the Bentonville chamber.

Many of the transplants had higher expectations than the simple living standards the area was accustomed to. The result was a building boom that brought in better housing stock, more restaurants, more arts and new amenities, including luxury spas.

"We had people moving in from all over the world, which changed us forever," the chamber's Clifford said.

"We all drove nondescript things because Sam was in a pickup," he said, referring to the company's founder. "They drove BMWs, Mercedes and Jaguars."

But some argue that the retailer may have too much influence in the area and that the vanishing billboard may be the latest sign of its hold.

It was bought on behalf of Wal-Mart Watch by Murphy, Putnam, Shorr & Partners, an Alexandria, Va.-based Democratic media consulting firm, for about $7,000. Whistler Outdoor Advertising of Oklahoma owns the billboard and approved the artwork submitted by Wal-Mart Watch May 26. The billboard was put up about 8 a.m. June 1 - and gone by the afternoon.

The Whistler company did not return phone calls. But Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, said his organization was told by the advertising company that many of Whistler's clients do business with Wal-Mart.

The billboard read, "Wal-Mart, will you accept our handshake?" It followed up an advertisement that Wal-Mart Watch placed in The New York Times asking Wal-Mart to come to an agreement to improve its business practices.

"We're sorry they took the billboard down," Wexler said. "We were hoping to promote a dialogue, not provoke a fight."

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the company had no influence on the advertising company's decision to take the billboard down.

"Wal-Mart Watch has done publicity stunt after publicity stunt, and people are beginning to see through their actions and what their agenda really is about," spokesman Dan Fogleman said. "We here can't be distracted by the agendas that special-interest groups like them have. We have to focus on taking care of our customers and associates and growing the economic climate in the communities that we serve."

Said Wexler, "It's definitely a company town."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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