We drove some backroads home from Eureka Spring, Arkansas yesterday – starting about 10 miles east in the town of Berryville, which turned out to be more down-on-its-luck than my guidebook suggested. Couldn’t help notice the huge and bustling Wal-Mart on the edge of town – a distinct contrast to the struggling town square business district. And couldn’t help but remember that Bentonville, which we visited Saturday, is the unusual small town that has clearly benefited economically from Wal-Mart – and that’s because it’s not a typical small town but a company town, Wal-Mart’s company town no less. I can’t fault Wal-Mart for wanting to make its company town look like the perfect American small town, squeaky clean with landscaped gardens and well-kept businesses, but it’s a tad ironic considering the company’s reported disastrous effect on so many other small rural communities, where it has been accused of helping to shutter local businesses and suck the life out of many a downtown. (For details on the “Wal-Mart Effect” see: advocate.nyc.gov/news/2011-01-11/new-study-wal-mart-means-fewer-jobs-less-small-businesses-more-burden-taxpayers)
I don’t recall seeing this issue addressed at the Wal-Mart Visitor Center in Bentonville – although the center’s displays were more interesting than I expected. (I was impressed and moved by the display recalling Wal-Mart’s aid to the Gulf Coast post-Hurricane Katrina.) One more question came to mind in downtown Bentonville – why so many law offices? Granted the town square is dominated by the county courthouse but still…Are they all fighting the good fight for Wal-Mart?
As for the Crystal Bridges Museum, while there, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to the Wal-Mart heiress who opened it for sharing her stunning American art collection and vision, free of charge, with us little people. But again, later, I did start to think a bit about the irony of this high-brow, high-culture palace being funded by the profits of a company whose stores are anything but high-brow, high culture; a company that has not always treated or paid its employees well, and whose overall contribution to our economy, culture, and society is debatable. High-culture largesse is nothing new for corporate titans but sometimes its hard to decide whether what they give outweighs what they take, or have taken.