In its rise as the nation’s largest retailer, Walmart has pushed millions into the grinder of working poverty — employed but lacking a living wage, health insurance, job security, dignity, and a voice in the workplace — while decimating the community fabric of many suburbs and small towns. But while recently visiting my mother in Bentonville, Arkansas, my husband and I were astonished to discover that the Walton family is also building a professional-class urban utopia in and around its headquarters.
The Waltons are using their charity, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) to bankroll the conversion of small-town Bentonville into a playground for Walmart’s management class and supply chain vendors, with expansion of the arts, foodie culture, education, transportation, and mental and physical health associated with the consumption norms of a professional-class labor force.
The WFF presents itself as an altruistic, philanthropic charity dedicated to the well-being of the wider Northwest Arkansas (NWA) region. But the foundation’s self-appointed role of NWA’s regional developer actually functions as a three-pronged accumulation strategy for the Walton family. The WFF serves as a tax shelter in which the Walton family stashes its financial largesse to avoid paying Uncle Sam. In turn, the Foundation uses the Waltons’ sheltered fortune to finance public improvement projects that are intended to attract skilled workers to Walmart headquarters region as it shifts to e-commerce retailing. Then, as Bentonville develops economically, the Walton family is well-positioned to capture rents that flow into the region as a consequence of the Foundation’s efforts to make the place a more appealing location to do business.
The Waltons have deployed their charitable foundation to exploit Bentonville’s willingness to trade democratic control over planning and decision-making for access to Walton capital. In this twenty-first-century take on the company town, WFF’s philanthropic urbanism scales up private control over urban governance structures from the piecemeal public-private partnership model of early neoliberal urban privatization efforts to one that is more all-encompassing — portending a dystopian urban future in which a corporation’s philanthropic arm has the ability to remake an entire metro area according to that corporation’s whims.
Walmart’s Urban Utopia
For over a generation, Walmart’s massive, highly integrated distribution network has imposed itself across the global economy. The company is the world’s largest private employer, with 2.2 million people working in 11,000 stores across 27 countries, generating $500 billion in yearly revenue. The Walton family has a majority stake in the firm; its members have a combined wealth of $228 billion as of 2020.
Walmart began as a general-goods store in Bentonville (population 3,000) in the 1950s. For the next seventy years, the development of Bentonville and the larger NWA region was tied directly to being Walmart’s headquarters. Suppliers and business service firms seeking to do business with Walmart were required to migrate to the hinterlands of “upper South” Arkansas as a prerequisite for contracting with the company.
As a result, Bentonville’s population and regional importance grew alongside Walmart. Today, Bentonville has a population of sixty thousand residents and is the center of the NWA metro region, an amalgamation of small towns and suburbs of roughly 460,000, in which 77 percent of Bentonville residents are white, 9 percent are Latino, 6 percent are Asian, and 2 percent are black.
Over the last decade, as the retail sector shifts away from brick-and-mortar stores toward e-commerce, Walmart’s leading edge has been challenged by new commerce giants, chiefly Amazon. To compete with Amazon and modernize their retailing venture, Walmart has built out their online store and invested in other e-commerce companies like Jet.com to manage new forms of distribution.
This new phase of retail competition found Walmart operating from a position of comparative weakness, as Walmart’s recruiters encountered difficulties luring the high-skill “creative class” labor necessary to compete in this more nimble online sphere to relocate to small town, red-state, conservative, Bentonville, Arkansas. Junior executives in training, finance experts, supply-chain vendors, and technology workers were not attracted to quiet, provincial red-state, small-town life. Why would they forego coastal areas that provide a smorgasbord of professional-class lifestyle consumption opportunities?
Walmart’s solution was to gentrify Bentonville and the wider NWA region with the cultural accoutrements and amenities the management class finds appealing. WFF was mobilized to address the problem of attracting high-skill labor by serving as the vehicle of community development.
WFF became the region’s de facto planner and coordinated with government agencies on Bentonville’s downtown revitalization, as well as on regional infrastructure and transportation upgrades. Foundation planners produced the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program regional plan and brought in fifty international firms with expertise in landscape architecture and urban design, museum curation, and infrastructure engineering to realize urban planning initiatives.
The Foundation’s planners implemented New Urbanist design enhancements promoting sustainability and community through increasing density, enhancing neighborhoods’ walkability, and creating arts scenes and public recreational and green spaces. WFF architects even invented an Arkansas architecture vernacular that pays homage to Arkansas landscape and (unintentionally) the big-box store: all foundation-financed buildings are stylized boxy buildings clad in wood, corrugated tin, or board-formed concrete.
Foundation planners emphasized their commitment to preserving a sense of place by combating the alienation associated with urban sprawl. Bentonville’s town square is a throwback to a 1950s Main Street, the center of town life. The original Walmart store has been turned into a museum of nostalgia, enshrining the town’s patriarch and creating a sense of Bentonville’s specialness.
The Walton foundation has helped finance, build, and maintain hundreds of miles of highly manicured mountain bike trails to make NWA a mountain-biking capital of the United States. Cyclists can ride the forty miles of the paved Razorback Greenway that connects the NWA region, from Bella Vista to Fayetteville. Or they can hop on trails that are woven into Bentonville’s neighborhoods.
The Foundation’s landscape designers crafted the three-hundred-acre Coler Mountain Bike Preserve into a network of biking and hiking trails and tree canopies. Visitors can refresh themselves at Airship Coffee, an open-air café and beer garden in the Arkansas architecture vernacular, featuring locally brewed beers and kombuchas, or stretch out on the yoga platforms dotting the natural landscape. The road-bike infrastructure in Bentonville is top shelf compared to that of any other city in the United States. Landscape designers have turned their attention toward building an interconnected string of green spaces, so that residents can traverse the city under a tree canopy or have dotted community-center spaces to have a picnic, stage impromptu performances, or scale outdoor climbing walls.
To cultivate an arts scene, WFF built two world-class art museums, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its contemporary art-experience satellite The Momentary. Museumgoers can then while away the day in the museums’ various coffee labs or drink craft cocktails at The Momentary’s Tower Bar, inspired by the high modernism of a 1960s airport lounge. In the evening, film buffs can take in a movie at the Walton Foundation–supported Skylight Cinema.
The foundation also brought in leaders in the hospitality industry to create a culinary scene, with New American and ethnic fusion restaurants lining the town center, plus a high-end food court, 8th Street Market, complete with a gourmet chocolatier, a juicer, a shuffleboard lounge, and a burrito shop.
WFF also recognized the premium that professional-class parents place on high-quality social services. To that end, the Foundation spearheaded the Helen R. Walton’s Children’s Enrichment Center, located blocks away from the future 350-acre corporate headquarters campus.
The early-childhood daycare center offers small classrooms staffed by degreed teaching professionals guiding a “Whole Child” approach for children’s development. Recognizing that toxin-riddled products can hinder development, the Center offers nutritional services and a chemical-free environment for the kids of Walmart’s managers.
Down the road, these children can attend the Foundation-supported Thaden School, a six- to twelfth-grade private school par excellence. Similar to the Walton Childhood Development Center, Thaden is planned for five to six hundred students, allowing the school to limit fifteen students to a classroom. Thaden offers its parents and students “a core curriculum called ‘Wheels, Meals, and Reels,’ which will use bicycles, food, and moviemaking to help teach math, physics, history, sociology, urban planning, and other subjects. . . Thaden promises to be an oasis in a world where most schools teach to the standardized tests.”
Thaden’s curriculum is designed for students to actively learn in the school’s greenhouse, gardens, teaching kitchen, mountain-bike obstacle course, and bicycle maintenance facilities. Students will also be able to show their films in the school’s $12 million arts center.
Bourgeois Enclave Simulation
Bentonville is saturated with the infrastructure, public services, and cultural amenities that the professional classes strive for. And yet, as a lived experience, the town feels empty, and ersatz — at best, like a chintzy old-school diorama of New Urbanist professional-class consumption norms, and, at worst, some simulated bourgeois enclave culled from a Black Mirror episode.
On Bentonville’s streets, the new housing development mimics the architectural styles of a San Francisco or Parisian streetscape. Bentonville boosters market differentiated, specialized “districts,” like the Cigar District, when only a single cigar shop is open for business.
The city is infused with sanitized street-art projects commissioned by the WFF with messaging that could have been transcribed straight from the brainstorming session of an HR department diversity retreat. One depicts a child of color whimsically chalk-drawing on the side of a building with an overall strap hanging off his shoulders, like a Precious Moments figurine. While Bentonville claims to be a mountain-biking mecca, the smell of weed that often accompanies mountain bikers was nowhere to be found in the two weeks we spent in Bentonville. And the nachos sucked.
For all their pretense of “community-building through design,” parochial paranoia abounds. While we biked around the Thaden School campus, marveling at the school’s Scandinavian-inspired architecture, we were stopped by a security guard in a golf cart. After telling us that suspicious teachers asked him to investigate us (two middle-aged people on bikes), he bragged how Thaden was designed without fences precisely to encourage the community to interface and activate the open campus design.
The Walton Family Foundation’s putatively benevolent utopia-building in Bentonville and the NWA region are possible, of course, because of the Walton family’s rapacious economic and political activities in the rest of the world.
Walmart’s global retailing dominance forms the bulk of the Walton family’s $228 billion fortune, stemming from its ownership of roughly half of all Walmart stock. The story of how Walmart’s profits are made off the backs of the working poor is well-established.
To achieve global retailing dominance, Walmart’s business model has wreaked massive environmental havoc. Walmart organized a globally dispersed supply chain — reliant, of course, on fossil fueled transportation networks. To gain economies of scale, Walmart favored store locations in small towns and on suburban peripheries, altering the geography of consumption away from dense, walkable Main Streets to fossil-fueled, car-centric sprawl.
In turn, the Waltons use their spoils to fashion a wider economy, polity, and culture amenable to ever more profit making for the Waltons and other families like them. The Walmart corporation operates one of the largest corporate PACs in the United States, and the Waltons understand how to use the two-party system to benefit them.
Walmart money and connections helped Bill Clinton rise to national prominence in the late 1980s, when he was governor of Arkansas. The Walmart PAC has been the second-largest corporate donor to the Republican Party. Walton family members donated to the presidential campaign of George W. Bush, whose tax cuts on income from stock dividends enabled the Walton family to keep $607 million from federal tax collectors per year.
While they pay as little taxes as possible, the Waltons take as much as they can from the government. By paying its workers poverty wages, Walmart socializes the costs of its labor force by pushing their employees to utilize federal anti-poverty programs to survive, like food assistance, Medicaid, and public housing, at the cost of around $6.2 billion a year.
Local governments also subsidize costs associated with new Walmart store construction. New Jobs First documented over $1 billion in state and local government handouts to Walmart between 1983 and 2004.
The Walton Foundation also uses its financial power to capture government infrastructure grant dollars. Many federal grants for infrastructure projects require a local match to pay for upgrades. Localities starved by capitalists’ tax avoidance tactics often do not have the necessary local match to access federal grant money. But private foundation dollars can leverage federal revenues.
For example, the $38 million Razorback Regional Greenway was financed with a combination of $15 million from the Foundation and a $15 million grant from the US Department of Transportation, with money from the municipality and the Arkansas State Highway Commission making up the rest.
In summary: Walmart suppresses workers’ wages and siphons value out of the places they operate, leaving behind a trail of environmental and community devastation. The Walton family then uses this money power to fuel its political power, to ensure it can hold on to the wealth it captures, and socialize the costs of its business activity. Making all scales of government pay for its accumulation deprives the public of revenue needed to fund the infrastructure, architecture, and playgrounds that Bentonville residents enjoy thanks to the WFF’s largesse.
Placemaking as Accumulation Strategy
The Walton family is not acting altruistically by transforming Bentonville. Rather, these investments are part of an accumulation strategy.
First, the primary reason behind constructing Walmart’s professionalized urban utopia is to lure skilled workers to Bentonville for the retailer to be competitive in e-commerce. Walmart’s competitive edge in online retailing will yield the Walton family dividends well into the future.
Second, the Walton family’s charitable investments in Bentonville allow the family to avoid an estimated $3 billion in federal estate taxes. Charitable trusts function as tax shelters for the very rich.
According to Accounting Today, “When a donor sets [a trust] up, the IRS assesses how much gift or estate tax is due, based on how much of the trust’s assets will end up benefiting charity and how much will go to heirs.” In order to evade estate taxes, the charitable trusts must donate a portion of the trust to charitable organizations or projects that work for the public good. “Whatever is left at the end [of a twenty- to thirty-year period] goes to a beneficiary, usually the donor’s heirs, without any tax bill.”
Trusts can invest funds in ways that are not encumbered the same way charitable projects are. If investments return anything above the amount earmarked for charitable giving, these returns can also be passed on, tax free, to heirs. For example, Helen Walton, the widow of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, stashed over a billion dollars in four trusts. The IRS tax rate on those funds was 3.6 percent. Her trusts invested these funds and “the trusts returned about 14 percent a year. . . That growth means the four Helen Walton trusts have been accumulating assets faster than they give them away. As of 2011, they held a combined $2 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 2007.”
Charitable trusts not only allow elites to shelter their wealth from the federal government, but also empower the wealthy to shape public planning and policy without a democratic mandate. Taxes fund projects and policies that are accountable to the electorate; if average people don’t like the way elected officials are using tax dollars, those people can vote the elected officials out of office. By depriving the federal government of tax revenues in order to hoard those funds for their own development priorities, the Waltons’ charities deprive the American people of decision-making control over how wealth is allocated — and maintain de facto control over public policy.
Since 2003, Walton family members have injected billions into the Walton Family Foundation through twenty-one charitable trusts. Before building their Bentonville utopia, the Walton Family Foundation spent the bulk of its philanthropy dollars privatizing public education.
The cruelty of the Foundation’s support for the Thaden School’s enriching curriculum and small class sizes will not be lost on critics of the Waltons’ neoliberal education reforms. The Waltons seek to supplant public education with a marketized “school choice” education deform centered on charter schools. By pitting privatized charter schools in competition with underfunded public schools for student enrollments, the Waltons intend to drive neighborhood public schools out of the education market through closure.
The Walton Foundation spent $1.3 billion to promote charter school proliferation. One in four charter schools in the United States now receive start-up funds from the Foundation. The Walton Foundation also promoted the use of standardized test scores — from which Thaden promises to be an oasis — to punish urban schools that were unable to perform at levels achieved by more resource-rich school districts.
Charter school proliferation funded by the Walton Foundation deteriorates quality public education across entire school districts. With more schools to support, local school districts make drastic cuts to frontline education, trim curriculum to the bare bones, and, in some cases, cram forty-plus students into classrooms. In cities like Chicago, charter school proliferation led to massive public school closures that overwhelmingly impacted black communities that lost their community anchors.
Today, the Walton Foundation currently issues about $575 million in annual grants, with half of those going to NWA redevelopment projects. Sam’s daughter Alice Walton was central in redirecting the Foundation’s charitable giving toward Bentonville’s redevelopment in 2005, when she laid the groundwork for the Foundation’s $1 billion investment in her vanity project, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Finally, as the Walton Foundation’s placemaking projects successfully lure people to the NWA region, the Waltons are well-positioned to capture value from growing real estate demand. Bentonville’s population is on track to double from its 2000 levels by 2025. Greater demand for housing has already increased prices for homes in Bentonville by more than $100,000 between 2014 and 2019, where the total value of real estate has reached an all-time high of $2.64 billion.
The Walton family owns Arvest Bank, the largest home lender in the region. Arvest also finances the expansion of retail and office space, serving as the region’s primary banking institution and issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses totaling over $1 billion.
On a smaller scale, arts and culture consumption grew 300 percent between 2010 and 2015, generating $131 million in economic activity. The Waltons’ tax shelter partially finances amenities that attract high-skill labor, which in turn facilitate further profit making from the niches of community building.
A Parallel State
In The People’s Republic of Walmart, Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski reveal the lie that central planning cannot work by detailing the success of Walmart to logistically organize a globally dispersed network of producers and markets. We need central planning not only for global supply chains but for places.
Neoliberals from both sides of the aisle suggest that central planning is inefficient and planning should mostly be left to market forces. But Bentonville’s urban oasis could never exist if it had to face the brute forces of market discipline. There is simply not enough effective demand generated by Bentonville residents to pay for these quality-of-life improvements on their own.
Bentonville’s transformation is dependent upon a supposedly nonmarket actor, the Walton Family Foundation, working like a parallel state, to set development priorities, organize the logistics to realize these projects, and assemble the capital to subsidize it all.
But philanthropic urban planning is not a democratic, scalable, or desirable model. It works in accordance with a winner-takes-all strategy premised on the immiseration of other places, so a few lucky souls can live the good life. Bentonville’s vibrance only exists insofar as Walmart is able to siphon value out of other places — through low wages, subsidies, tax avoidance strategies, and union busting — and concentrate a portion of that surplus in Bentonville.