Local input necessary for growth


Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton and heirs of the Walton fortune, founded the Runway Group, LLC, to invest in properties and businesses throughout Northwest Arkansas.

Walmart Enterprises, Inc., which includes Steuart and Tom and their father, Jim Walton, son of Helen and Sam Walton and founder of Arvest Bank Group, own more than 6,000 acres in Kingston. About two years ago, Walmart Enterprises purchased three buildings on the Kingston Square. A Runway Group spokesperson said plans are to update the historic buildings and open them for the community. The spokesperson said there are no plans to develop the other Kingston acreage.

The Waltons have come in the crosshairs after the public learned that they, along with First Gentleman Bryan Sanders, had quietly been pushing a proposal to explore re-designating land around the Buffalo National River as a “national park preserve.”

People exploring the proposal use New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia as a model.

To learn more about what they envisioned for the Buffalo National River area, The Record visited New River Gorge. We interviewed locals — from government officials to service workers to business owners and Realtors. We learned a lot and are happy to share that with our readers in our two-part series beginning this week.

As a service to public journalism, our stories about the proposed re-designation are outside of our paywall. You may read all of them in their entirety without a paid subscription. We are thankful for our new readers who said they subscribed because they also believe in community journalism. We were able to supplement the income from our new subscribers to finance our trip to Fayetteville, W. Va.

The series is long, we know, but we believe it’s important to share what we learned so that everyone can form an educated opinion about the proposal.

We hope you’ll read and enjoy the series but we also want to share some short takeaways with you.

There is a distinction between a national park and a national preserve. A national park is the crown jewel and areas seeking to become a national park face intense scrutiny when determining whether they deserve that status. No hunting, fishing, oil and gas exploration or mineral extractions may take place on national park land.

The purpose of a national park is to tell the stories of its region, the history of its people, attributes local people want to pass down to future generations.

A national preserve allows fishing, hunting, and mineral extraction and does not face heightened scrutiny and the designation is easier to achieve.

Currently, land around the Buffalo National River can be used for hunting and fishing but not mineral extractions or gas and oil explorations. 

Big money often comes from mineral extraction and oil and gas explorations.

People pushing the re-designation have used the terms park and preserve interchangeably creating confusion about what they seek to become.

Growth is coming to this area. It is up to the locals how they choose to handle it.

Business will increase, especially if the area is re-designated as park status. That business can come at the expense of a way of life, such as giving up a quiet, peaceful lifestyle for a stronger economy in the area, increasing property values while also creating a shortage of affordable housing, and sharing the beauty of the area while seeing an increase in traffic. 

A local park is technically owned by everyone, but locals need input. A national park is not just a way to bring in more money and infrastructure. In most circumstances, funding does not flow right away to the park or preserve with the re-designation. Any funding increases for a park or preserve will usually be at least three years away and there are no guarantees. Instead, most of the money comes from people spending money at local businesses, eating at local restaurants, and investing in real estate.

We interviewed the former New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Park Superintendent Lizzie Watts. She summed up the process.

“I think the city leaders, the county leaders, the administrators, the park staff and anybody in economic development needs to be on the same page of what does that look like in 10 years. It can’t just be the ones who are going to make money off of it. It has to be everybody having those conversations.

“What do we want it to look like? How do we want it to be designed? What do we want to pass on to our kids? And why is that so important? And if that conversation doesn’t happen and people aren’t paying attention to the political side of the house, then in my opinion, bad things can happen because money does a lot of stuff in the world and so does politics.”

If people want it to be successful, locals need to be part of the process.

“They need to say, ‘Let’s have community meetings every month. Let’s make sure we are on the same design page and we see the same thing. And what do we want to preserve about our town and our community that is so special to us that we don’t want to affect that at all, by anything.’ And that’s a hard conversation to have, but it’s essential.”


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