Regionalism, food hubs, innovation centers and more: Lawrence and Topeka leaders mine Northwest Arkansas for development ideas

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, includes a traditional town square and lots of older buildings.

Fayetteville, Ark. — As about 130 leaders from Lawrence and Topeka embarked on a trip to Northwest Arkansas this week, a common goal was to find a couple of million-dollar ideas to bring back to their communities.

In some ways, though, that is the equivalent of dime-store shopping here in the Arkansas Ozarks. After all, a million-dollar idea is only so impressive in a land that is dominated by billionaires.

It doesn’t take long here to understand how much the Walton family — the founders of America’s most successful dime store, Walmart — have shaped the place.

It was never more evident as leaders on Wednesday toured the Bentonville Collaborative, a University of Arkansas-affiliated business assistance center here in the town that also houses Walmart’s corporate headquarters.

The innovation center, tucked along one of the region’s many hike and bike trails, was funded by an approximately $195 million grant from a foundation controlled by the Walton family.

Cue what was always going to be the running gag on this trip: All we have to do is go back home and find our billionaire.

True enough, that is one idea you could take from this trip that was organized by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Greater Topeka Partnership. But there are others that are likely to be more useful.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence Mayor Courtney Shipley asks a question during a forum of elected leaders in Northwest Arkansas on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

After one day on this trip, which goes through Friday, one big idea is brewing among the group: regionalism. That’s the idea of area communities coming together and working as one to create a regional economy. The idea that a rising tide lifts all ships is a big one down here. So too is the idea that you have to get past the rivalries and differences that so often develop among neighboring communities.

“The reason you need to work together is because you are not competing against each other,” Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, told the group. “You are competing with the world.”

That is a billion-dollar idea that you may not need a billionaire to implement. I’ll write more about the idea of whether Lawrence and Topeka could actually be interested in working in partnership to create more of a regional economy, similar to how the communities in this area have. All five Lawrence city commissioners are on this trip, a Douglas County commissioner is expected to join the group today, and several elected leaders from Topeka and Shawnee County are here as well. It will be interesting to see what types of attitudes they leave with regarding the idea of working together to create a regional economic partnership.

In the meantime, let me do what a tourist does: share some photos and scenes from the trip:

• Here’s an idea for all those restaurants that are struggling to find enough employees to staff their kitchens: Create a culinary training center and then locate a row of low-cost restaurant spaces right next door to the center.

That’s basically what they’ve done in Bentonville with the 8th Street Market, a “community focused food hub, where a spirit of creativity meets entrepreneurship.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Northwest Arkansas Community College operates Brightwater, a culinary training institute in Bentonville, Arkansas, that trains about 250 students a year.

The facility is in a former chicken-processing plant. A good portion of the facility houses Brightwater, a culinary training center run by Northwest Arkansas Community College. The center has multiple cooking classrooms, beverage centers and even its own greenhouse to teach students how to create meals from farm to table.

In the other part of the 27,000-square-foot building there are approximately a half-dozen restaurants and shops, ranging from a chocolate maker to a ramen restaurant to a unique brewery that combines bicycles and beer.

While not exactly a food hall concept, there is some sharing of resources and quite a bit of collaboration that happens as being part of the 8th Street Market concept.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens, foreground, and City Commissioner Brad Finkeldei, background, view a beverage lab as part of the Brightwater culinary training center in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Yes, the Walton family has played a role in creating the market, but I certainly heard Lawrence folks pondering how such an idea could play out in Lawrence. Think of some of the larger, vacant spaces in downtown Lawrence as a possibility.

But another intriguing idea tied the concept to KU’s new Innovation Park on West Campus. KU and KU Endowment leaders have said they want a commercial/retail component to that developing research park. Could this be the type of commercial model used?

• KU leaders certainly were paying attention to a tour we received of the Bentonville Collaborative, this region’s version of an innovation and business assistance center. KU already is well along in its own efforts on that front, with the West Campus space formerly known as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center.

This Arkansas space is similar in some ways, but the differences are probably more interesting. Rather than providing low-cost, incubator-type office space to tenants, it appeared that the facility currently is more focused on providing some intense training programs to specific types of businesses.

The Collaborative promotes what it calls its Greenhouse program. A recent example of it in action was a 12-week program that focused on training entrepreneurs who want to create businesses focused on outdoor entertainment. That’s a really tight niche, but leaders here are excited about the potential. The recently completed program trained leaders of a new company that manufactures rope for the climbing industry, another that rents electric bicycles, a firm that develops unique hunting grounds, and one startup that uses AirPods and other technology to develop self-guided trail tours.

Participants pay nothing to receive the 12 weeks of training, which include lessons on everything from business accounting to manufacturing processes to growth and management strategies.

While outdoor recreation companies were the focus of this program, the Collaborative will focus on other areas in the future. An upcoming series will be a 10-month program for health and medical technology businesses.

• Downtown Bentonville also got lots of looks from Lawrence leaders on the trip. Like Lawrence, the downtown has lots of restaurants, shops and old buildings, including one of the earliest Walmart stores that now serves as a museum. Not surprisingly, the downtown also has a modern-day Neighborhood Walmart.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, includes a Walmart museum, in addition to a host of restaurants and shops.

A big difference between the two downtowns, though, is an old-fashioned town square. Bentonville has one, and it created a real public gathering spot. I saw several people getting take-out orders from downtown restaurants and setting up their lawn chairs in the square for a picnic.

But the difference that struck me between the two downtowns was the diversity in building types that is occurring in downtown Bentonville. The downtown definitely presents a historic look around its square, but developers are allowed to build much more modern and larger buildings right outside that square.

One of the biggest buildings under construction is The Ledger. Large and full of glass, the building is billed as a 230,000-square-foot co-working space. Businesses can lease space by the month, or even just rent a conference room for a day, according to the project’s website. Its bigger claim to fame may be that it is promoting itself as the “first-ever bikeable building.” The exterior of the building will feature six stories of switchback trails. In other words, you can literally bike up and down the building.

That is a pretty unique project, and it is probably worth considering whether Lawrence’s current system for downtown development would accommodate such a project.

But we will have to do that pondering later. The group now is off to the University of Arkansas to learn about that university’s growth and development, along with several other topics. Check back for more updates as the trip progresses.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The Ledger, a 230,000-square-foot co-working space, is under construction in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.


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