Walton Family Foundation says WAC expansion should occur in Bentonville

If the Walton Family Foundation has anything to do with it, the proposed expansion of the Walton Arts Center will occur in Bentonville.

The foundation weighed in on the future of its namesake organization in a letter from foundation executive director Buddy D. Philpot to Walton Arts Center president Peter Lane on Tuesday.

“We do not foresee being the lead donor for a new performing arts facility in a location other than Bentonville,” the letter said.

“A Bentonville location will serve as a good complement to the existing Walton Arts Center facility in Fayetteville, as facilities in Bentonville and Fayetteville would give our region strong performing arts ‘anchors,'” Philpot wrote. “This location would further complement and strengthen the growth and revitalization that will be occurring in downtown Bentonville, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.”

We do not foresee being the lead donor for a new performing arts facility in a location other than Bentonville.

— Walton Family Foundation

The Walton Arts Center has been accepting proposals for expansion of their facilites since they announced their criteria for expansion back in March. The deadline for submissions for those proposals was set for August 2.

Jodi Beznoska, Vice President of Communications at Walton Arts Center told us that the new information provided by the Walton Family Foundation would not interrupt the site selection process.

“This feedback will be included in the evaluation process,” Beznoska said. “It will not change the site selection process, and once we hit August 2, our board will use the information as just one piece of the puzzle to make their decision.”

Beznoska said that the center welcomed the feedback from the Walton family.

“It’s not saying anything new or different to say that the Walton Family Foundation has been one of our biggest supporters, so it is important to hear what they have to say,” Beznoska said. “(Their feedback) is something that we have been asking for for some time.”

The foundation currently contributes a grant in the amount of about one-million dollars per year of the Walton Arts Center’s current approximate ten-million dollar annual operating budget.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan has said on numerous occasions that it is a priority of his administration to make sure the proposed expansion of the Walton Arts Center occur in Fayetteville.

Last month, the City of Fayetteville approved a paid parking plan for the entertainment district that includes about $289,000 annually to be designated to the center. Jordan’s Chief of Staff Don Marr said at a town hall meeting recently that the designated revenue for WAC is aimed at keeping the expansion in Fayetteville and addressing their number one customer service issue, which is parking.

The allocation made to the center in the paid parking plan is not contingent on the center expanding in Fayetteville, however.

Jordan told the Northwest Arkansas Times that Fayetteville has not submitted a proposal to the Walton Arts Center yet, but that he isn’t giving up on the possibility of the center expanding in Fayetteville.

“No, it doesn’t change any of my plans,” Jordan told the Times. “We have a really great proposal, partnered with the University of Arkansas, that we’re going to present.”

The Walton Family Foundation also addressed concerns about the size and scope of the project, particularly in the current economic climate.

In October 2008, the Walton Arts Center Council announced the completion of a facility feasibility study which cited the need for $180 million in expansion and proposed a 2,200-seat theater, a 600-seat multi-use space, and a 100-seat black box studio.

“We feel the expansion as currently proposed is simply too large in terms of scope and cost,” Philpot wrote. “We recommend holding off on making a final decision on this for a period of time.

“This would allow any proposed expansion to be reexamined within the context of the current economic climate and the future potential impact of other Northwest Arkansas cultural amenities now being planned,” read the letter.

Beznoska said that the cost and scope of the project will be determined once the site for expansion is selected.

“The $180 million number that is out there is really just a placeholder. The actual cost of the expansion will really depend on the site,” she said. “Once we’ve selected a site, things like selecting an architect, how the building will interact with the surroundings, materials, all kinds of things will factor into the actual cost.”

Of course, the top criteria listed in the site selection process is funding.

“Funding is our top criteria, but there are 13 14 other criteria,” Beznoska said. “This is part of a much larger process, and that process will go on.”

Read the Walton Family Foundation’s letter