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Cities hypothesize on science museum's future

Apr 11, 2008
BENTON COUNTY - With the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art being erected in Bentonville, northwest Arkansas is not only preparing for a world-class art institution but a completely different economic driver than this area has ever seen. And leaders and stakeholders in Bentonville and Rogers are determined to make sure Crystal Bridges isn't the last museum to establish roots here.

Bethany Stephens, senior vice president of the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, is among the leaders in Benton County who assume that a science and technology museum - first envisioned in 2005 by now-deceased prominent Fayetteville community leader John Lewis - would eventually be erected in Washington County. Talk to Bentonville and Rogers leaders - and even Brent Robinson, interim director of the Northwest Arkansas Museum Foundation - and they'll tell you Bentonville or Rogers has just as good a chance at landing the 130, 000-square-foot science and technology museum as Fayetteville or Springdale.

Since Lewis' death in 2007, the Northwest Arkansas Museum Foundation has continued to work to bring his vision for a science and technology museum to life. And last week, the organization released a request for proposals for possible locations for what - in conjunction with Crystal Bridges - could become northwest Arkansas' next big economic driver.

"Any community that's worth its salt would actively pursue a project like this," Stephens said. "There's a very organized group behind the science museum, and we in Rogers have taken this seriously since it was first announced in 2005. It all boils down to whether or not you have the site that will meet the requirements. "

Stephens said Rogers has had an "A-team"assembled for quite some time in an effort to pool resources and influences to land the science and technology museum.

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin has seen the site requirements as well and has confirmed that Bentonville has poured a tremendous amount of effort into luring the project to Bentonville and continues to do so.

According to Robinson, the Northwest Arkansas Museum Foundation could select a site from its growing list of proposals as soon as this summer. Board members are looking for a large site that includes space for more than 300 vehicles and bus parking, and is close to walking trails, highways, bus routes and potential rail lines. Sites with room to grow that offer proximity to other cultural and entertainment amenities are preferred, according to information on the organization's Web site at www. nwamuseum. org.

Leaders in Bentonville and Rogers believe their respective communities have sites that not only meet that criteria but go above and beyond.

While Robinson said site proposals from communities in Washington and Benton counties will be considered equally, he said the idea of clustering or locating more than one museum in close proximity has its definite advantages.

Crystal Bridges anticipates drawing 250, 000 visitors each year, while the science and technology museum could potentially draw 140, 000 annually, Robinson said. And that doesn't take into account plans that are starting to materialize for a Northwest Arkansas Children's Museum.

"The (science and technology ) museum was John Lewis' vision, and he was from Fayetteville, so maybe that's where some people have gotten the'this is a Fayetteville project' idea," Robinson said. "It very well could happen in Fayetteville, but our board members are from across the region. That was intended to take any bias out of the process. I've said over and over again, we've heard and will consider proposals up and down the Interstate 540 corridor."

McCaslin said Bentonville will continue to position itself for the museum, suggesting the site requirements set forth fall into the city's wheelhouse.

"I am very excited about the possibility," McCaslin said. "There's a tremendous amount - strategies, negotiations and actions - going on behind the scenes that don't just show up in the news.

"I can tell you Bentonville is very involved. There's no question (the science and technology museum ) would be a great addition. It would be an excellent fit with what we're already seeing come out of the ground here with Crystal Bridges."

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