By Kitty Chism
If a panoramic mural portraying a city’s history can be a powerful device for creating a sense of place, credit flourishing Benton, Arkansas, for turning the side of a 130-year-old downtown building into a celebration of just how far this city has come.
The wall art stretches across the side of a storefront on South Street that over the years has housed a hardware store, a grocery store, a department store and a barbershop.
It is 141 feet long and 31 feet tall and illustrates the story of the Saline River region from the time the Quapaw and Caddo tribes roamed these salt-rich hills through the eras of profitable lumbering and cotton farming. Civil War skirmishes and railroad expansions came next, and then the discovery of the nation’s largest reserve of bauxite, the source-ore for aluminum.
Along the way, it was also the story of potters, drawn here to work the area’s unique kaolin clay, a main ingredient of porcelain. The most notable potter was the late Charles D. “Bullet” Hyten, whose artful matte-finished Niloak works in swirls of white, rust and turquoise won worldwide acclaim.
All of this story is artfully depicted in the colorful mural on South Street, researched and designed by local texture artist Diane Roberts, then painted on commission in the fall of 2014 by Tennessee muralist Mark Davey. For a city of 35,000 that still has a decidedly small-town sensibility, the most charming detail about the mural may be that every human figure in it is a recognizable city resident who volunteered to dress in a period costume, pose for a rough sketch and help raise the $38,000 it cost to get the mammoth work done in weather-tough acrylic.
“People just love it here in Benton,” says longtime city council member James Herzfeld, 77, whose father, despite crippling polio, was heavily involved in Saline County politics when he started the insurance agency Herzfeld and his son runs today.
Longtime residents like this family say the city has become more than just a place to live. It’s a mentality — of ambition and progress.
Explains Herzfeld, “It has got the quality-of-life amenities that people really look for today. But people here always seem to want better and better, so for a city this size, we really have a lot.”
Indeed, it has some of the best public schools in the state, its own branch of the Saline County Library, an active Chamber of Commerce, its own coveted historic district and a large county hospital.
In just the past few years, its citizens have willingly taxed themselves so they can have state-of-the-art event and recreation facilities. At the urging of one city office, enough private donations were collected to build a charming pavilion in front of the Diane Roberts mural for a bi-weekly farmers’ market that in its first warm-weather season last year drew fresh-produce vendors from miles around.
The energy behind all of this stems in part from Benton’s nearly 10 percent leap in new residents over the past decade to bring the population to above 36,000, filling the city’s more than 12,000 apartments and homes to near capacity and raising the median income to above $150,000.
But getting these improvements took some visionary and persuasive leadership, a welcoming mindset and, most important of all, committed taxpayers to pay the bill.
“The city’s leaders saw opportunity,” says Brad Jordan, Benton’s economic development director for eight years. “They said, ‘We have to take the lead and capitalize on the great quality of life here.’ They knew exactly what was needed, and somehow our mayor these past eight years made everybody else believe these things were needed, too. And the result was nothing short of a miracle.”
Call it historic chutzpah. The city started in 1833 as a tiny settlement among the Caddo and Quapaw on the Saline River surrounded by salt works. Three years later, when Arkansas became a state, the city was chartered as an official municipality. Five landowners were elected to decide precisely where it would be, how it should be plotted and what it should be called. And the consensus was that it should be named for U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of the Missouri Territory, a persuasive albeit volatile statesman who once, in a gutsy duel, lodged a bullet into Andrew Jackson’s shoulder. Nevertheless, before Old Hickory left the White House, he agreed to support Benton’s crusade for Arkansas’ statehood.
And it was done.
Decades later the area would be the site of several Civil War skirmishes, the river often serving as a dividing line between warring Union and Confederate regiments. Ultimately, of course, Union forces succeeded and thousands of slaves fled behind northern lines until the Union won total victory in 1865, securing the slaves’ freedom for good.
In the decades after all of that came the railroads, the discovery of those significant deposits of bauxite in the earth and a few light industries like furniture manufacturing that sparked the local economy enough to mandate tearing down the aging courthouse in this, the county seat, and building a new Renaissance-revival one, designed by the state’s preeminent young architect of the time, Charles Thompson.
World War I saw a huge draw of local single men into the conflict — and then an effort to send them all tobacco with notes of encouragement, historians note. When World War II came along, Benton helped in another way: The area’s new bauxite mines became essential to the production of the country’s more than 3,000 warplanes. Still, the early 1960s brought the most significant change of all, when Interstate 30 was built to connect Little Rock with Texas and was plowed, wide and hectic, straight through the north side of town.
It turns out, the interstate was no great divide for Benton at all.
“We who grew up here embrace the interstate as an asset,” says Jordan. “For us, it’s just an easy way to get everywhere.”
Still, for many decades the city of Benton, situated in the state’s dead center, seemed to be growing without moving forward, the result of white flight over public-school desegregation that left the Benton tax base wobbly. As leaders began to realize this apparent reality, they quickly proposed a tax increase in 2007 to pay for services the now larger population needed.
And just as quickly, their effort failed.
Enter a new mayor in 2011, David J. Mattingly, who had worked as a chief operating officer for manufacturing companies, big and small; taught high-level leadership and production efficiency in the east; and worked in economic development while also sitting on the Quorum Court in Jonesboro.
And he imagined a whole lot more for the city of Benton.
“I’ve been known to take a risk or two,” he chuckles. So, systematically, he went out into the community and invited small groups to city hall and told them what the city could have, including bigger and better-paid police and firefighting forces and some excellent recreation facilities. It just needed to bring in more revenue.
And the people listened.
The city already boasted an enviable school district of 5,100 students whose scores on standardized tests were among the best in the state. In fact, it recently got a new, high-energy superintendent, Mike Skelton, 48, with administrator experience all around Arkansas. He says his problems are the good kind: dealing with parents outside the district who want to use school choice to get their kids into Benton schools, too, starting in kindergarten. His other big challenge is figuring how best to use the $13 million in bonded indebtedness the voters backed two years ago for things like a bus garage and a larger high-school band room.
“But we are the second largest Benton employer, and we want to keep all of those  great teachers who have given us our reputation for excellence,” Skelton says. “We need to support them with better pay, especially for new hires.”
The city also boasts a large county hospital with 175 beds and a mandate to expand care and diagnostic services in everything from sleep disorders to wound care and diagnostic imaging. The red-brick facility, visible from the freeway with 950 full- and part-time employees has a history dating back to the 1950s. It also has a brand new CEO, Michael Stewart, 43, who brings to the job 15 years of health care leadership in other states and degrees in engineering and business.
“I’m excited,” he says, just weeks after ground was broken for a new four-story heart hospital just down the road in Bryant. “I look at this job as a challenge to serve the dynamic needs of the area’s widely different demographics—from the under 20s to the over 80s —even as we grow our capabilities. As for a new heart hospital, I look at it as a chance to collaborate with a new provider and be part of the discussion on how we might work together for the community.”
Mattingly knew of all this, but he also knew the city needed more. He wanted trappings and services that could lure more millennials who will one day determine Benton’s future. He wanted a sprawling recreation center with an indoor Olympic-sized pool, an exercise pool and a gigantic splash pool and slide. Millennials, he says, also wanted weight rooms, indoor basketball and volleyball courts that could host regional tournaments with enough bleachers for a big crowd.
So, in 2011, he put all of this to a vote: a 1½ cent tax increase with no sunset clause that would dedicate a half-cent for public safety, another half cent for parks and one whole cent for quality of life facilities like the state-of-the-art recreation center, new Boys & Girls Club, more playing fields for soccer and baseball and a giant Senior Citizens Center.
The proposal won 70 percent of the vote.
“And now we have all these things, and we can continue to grow, which is good for business and everyone else,” he says, though even he never imagined that 18 months after the rec center opened it would already have 8,000 members happily paying $10 to $15 a month to use it.
Still, after eight years in office, Mattingly opted last fall not to run again. And his successor, Tom Farmer, a longtime football coach turned school transportation director who beat out two opponents to get the mayor’s job, says he will continue in much the same track as Mattingly.
“We have the wheels started with all of this, and what I hope my team will do is build on all of this progress,” he says. “Bring in more jobs and industry, more economic development all around and build Benton into the best it can be.”
In fact, a year ago Tina Coston, the mayor’s assistant for many years, was newly charged with event planning to bring the city more visibility and attract visitors with festivities like the “coffin races” and a Miss Zombie pageant at Halloween, an Independence Day bash with live music and fireworks, the annual “Salt Bowl” game between rival Benton and Bryant football teams and the regular “Third Thursday” downtown street parties, to name just a few.
In her new job, she hopes to put on even more and larger events, all with sponsors she calls “good community partners,” so no taxpayers’ money need be used to stage them.
In recent years, the city has garnered several new shopping centers with big box stores, more subdivisions, more restaurants and more things to do. It has the new headquarters of ACDI (Access Control Devices Inc.), a high-end electronics-manufacturing and software-development firm, and it has new ventures like one local couple’s grass-fed beef shop and a new Nutrition Loft selling herbal teas and energy-boosting drinks. It also has worked big market advantages like the newly renovated 18-hole golf course — an old one that had gone bust until the city made a deal with a developer to make the repairs in exchange for a permit to build multi-family rental units nearby.
But, says Gary James, executive director of the Saline County Economic Development Commission, the city and surrounding area still needs more job producers.
“The skilled labor force in this whole area is not big enough,” he says.
And now Saline County has a plan to do something about it.
The idea began in 2013 when a new study showed that a desperate need for trained workers was keeping manufacturing out of Central Arkansas. This past November, county leaders asked voters to approve a 3/8-cent sales tax to build a $43 million career and technical training school on 22 acres beside one of Benton’s freeway exits.
The school would be open to students in the six area high schools — Benton, Bryant, Bauxite, Sheridan, Harmony Grove and Malvern — to learn everything from welding to automotive repair, air-conditioner installation and medical technology starting while they are still in high school.
“So after studying the idea for two years, we asked people in all those county school districts for a short-term sales tax with a sunset clause,” says Jeff Avery, now in his fourth year as Saline County Judge. And while the county had never passed a sales tax before, this one passed by nearly 55 percent of the vote, a tidy rally of confidence.
That is hugely hopeful, says incoming Benton Mayor Farmer. It is also typical of Benton voters, ever enthusiastic about improving a city where they chose to live — mostly to get the best education for their children.
“People say nobody likes a tax,” Farmer says. “But people here see that we have to take the lead, seize opportunities to keep good things going here. This school could be a big key to our continued economic growth. And that’s what we all want for Benton.”