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In Northwest Arkansas, the trails (and events) just keep on growing

Published November 26, 2018

Editor's note: A version of this story appeared in the November issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

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BENTONVILLE, Ark. (BRAIN) — Attendees of the 2016 IMBA World Summit who returned to Northwest Arkansas this October for the advocacy group's Dirty 30 anniversary celebration had a nice surprise waiting for them: more than a hundred miles of new trails that weren't around when they visited just two years earlier.

It doesn't take a CPA to figure out the rate of growth.

"We've been averaging over a mile a week in [trail] construction," said Gary Vernon, program director for the Walton Family Foundation, the nonprofit whose largesse ignited and continues to fuel trail-building efforts throughout the region.

"A mile a week — that's unheard of," said Aimee Ross, a longtime IMBA staff member who moved to Northwest Arkansas this fall to take over as director of Bike Bentonville, the city's bike tourism arm housed within the Visit Bentonville visitors and convention bureau. "I've been living in Golden, Colorado, the past five years. To get a mile of trail there is a big deal, and it takes a long time through the process to get there. That's one thing that intrigued me with this job: getting a little more into how they got all the stakeholders to the table and play nicely together."

Retail giant Walmart calls Bentonville home, and founders Sam and Helen Walton founded the nonprofit Walton Family Foundation in 1987. The foundation's Home Region program is aimed at improving quality of life throughout Northwest Arkansas, and that mission includes trail building and preserving open space. (Walmart heirs Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Sam Walton, are both avid mountain bikers.)

The proliferation of trails started with the 5-mile Slaughter Pen trail system near downtown Bentonville in 2007. Today, the region boasts 400 miles of paved and natural surface trails — 250 miles of the latter. Over the decade through 2017, the Walton Family Foundation contributed $74 million to those efforts.

And a series of studies conducted for the foundation concluded that bicycling contributed $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas in 2017. That includes $51 million in direct business benefits — of which $27 million, or 52 percent, was tourism dollars.

Bike tourism is a significant economic driver for the region, the studies concluded: At least 55 percent of mountain bikers on the trails come from outside the region.

Like the growth in trail mileage, the number of bicycle events in Northwest Arkansas continues to surge. Bentonville alone will host 23 events before the year is up. The city's October calendar was so packed — events included the Epic Ride Series' Oz Trails Off-Road race, the Growler Grinder gravel event and, held in conjunction with the Outerbike Bentonville demo event, IMBA's Dirty 30 Celebration — that the city had to move an event traditionally held at Slaughter Pen to Fayetteville, 25 miles south.

"We thought it was a great event to have and we didn't want it to leave the region. So we reached out to Fayetteville because we'd love to keep it in the area, and they were on board with it," said Kalene Griffith, president of Visit Bentonville. "That's what I love about this region — we're vying for success for our entire region, not our individual cities."

That spirit of collaboration has been vital to building up Northwest Arkansas as a cycling destination. So has been promoting the region's riding opportunities over those of the individual cities, the Walton Family Foundation's Vernon noted.

"We have a region full of trails, so it makes sense to promote the region, not just Bentonville or Fayetteville or Bella Vista. That's where we worked with a branding agency and they came up with the Oz Trails with some really striking logos. And Oz is just for the Ozarks. We're part of the Ozarks, and Oz Trails has really hit the mark as far as recognition goes," he said.

"Looking at all of Oz Trails, all of us try to cooperate and help one another because it's for the benefit of all of Northwest Arkansas," Bella Vista mayor Peter Christie said. "And all of us have benefited from the funding we have received from the Walton Family Foundation to build these trails."

That Walton funding jumpstarted Bella Vista's Back Forty, a 40-mile network of singletrack on the city's east side. The foundation is also providing a $3.9 million grant for Bella Vista's next large-scale trail project: a 50-mile system in the center of the city called Eleven Under.

"It's named that because the trails will have 11 tunnels going under highways and roads," Christie said. "The reason for it is that on the eastern side you can get a clear run for 2 or 2½ miles before you hit a street. The configuration of homes in the central area is different, so in order to keep that experience at 2 miles it was decided we won't bring riders over the roads because some of them are busy. So we'll go underneath and drop in big corrugated 10-foot-high tunnels."

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