One of the pleasures of my recent visit to Bentonville, Arkansas, was meeting Dan Coody, mayor of Fayetteville, the "big city" (population: 67,000) about twenty-eight miles down I-540 from Wal-Mart's headquarters. Fayetteville, it seems, is becoming a hub of green business activity. As the Washington Post put it several weeks ago: "A wave of start-ups developing the technology to help suppliers prove their green credentials has swept into this sleepy college town, half an hour from the company's headquarters in Bentonville."
I sat down with Mayor Coody to find out why.
"Well, it wasn't by accident," Coody began. "It's a combination of factors. The chief driving force here is, of course, Wal-Mart and their big push for sustainability, coupled with the University of Arkansas." Wal-Mart and the university's Sam M. Walton College of Business teamed up to create a Center for Applied Sustainability, to which the retailer donated $1.5 million in August. According to the announcement, the center:
will work with a wide range of partners for the rapid development of sustainable business practices and to promote their application across the retail and consumer goods industries.
Over the next year, the center plans to study ways to reduce carbon in products and identify key sustainability issues in agriculture. The center will also hold a speakers series, help train buyers for Wal-Mart, and fund student research.
But that's not the entire reason for the green business surge, explains Coody. "Fayetteville has always been an environmentally conscious town, but we've been elevating the dialogue and attracting a lot of businesses that want to do their start-ups in Fayetteville because of our quality of life, the four seasons, and the location."
Coody calls Fayetteville the "Berkeley of Arkansas," though he also refers to it as "Green Valley" and "Silicon Holler." By whatever name, he says, "We have a lot of creative folks. A lot of folks wanting to take advantage of the Wal-Mart sustainability initiative but who want to live in a town like Fayetteville. So we have the best of both worlds."
The 55-year-old Coody, a carpenter by trade, became mayor six years ago, sweeping out an entrenched and, from the sound of it, pretty corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy that had ruled for years. "I saw what the good old boys were squandering," he told me. "It was the opposite of what I thought we should be."
Once on solid footing, Coody set out to make Fayetteville "the center of the sustainability movement," as he so modestly puts it. The green agenda came naturally. "I've been an environmentalist since I was a kid and I think that one of the reasons I ran for mayor is so I could push the environmental envelope in Fayetteville." Along the way, he's hoping to give cities like Portland, Seattle, Austin, and -- well, Berkeley -- a run for their money, banking on Fayetteville's lower cost of living, mid-continental locus, and small-town charm.
Fayetteville does seem to be on a roll of late. It was ranked eighth on Forbes Best Places in America for Business and Careers. Inc. magazine's annual survey of the nation's boomtowns, which focuses on job growth as an indicator of economic vitality, ranked Fayetteville 13th. Expansion Management, a magazine focusing on company relocation activity, named Fayetteville third among "top mid-size metros for recruitment and attraction." And U.S. News recently named Fayetteville among the "best places to retire."
Meanwhile, on the green front, the university is constructing its first green-built dorms. Coody has signed the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement, one of only three Arkansas cities to do so. His city government has begun using biodiesel in its fleet. Fayetteville boasts the first public sustainability coordinator in Arkansas. The city is taking food waste from Sam's Club and composting everything from apples to zucchinis.
All of which is attracting green business. "We have several companies, maybe 32 small start-ups, that are reaching the point of commercialization," says Coody. "And a lot of them are focused on the sustainability movement. We've had a lot of people coming into Fayetteville from East Coast and the West Coast, from New York, that want to be in an environment like what we have in Fayetteville." For example, he says, there's BioBased Technologies, which makes agro-based polyols for the polyurethane industry, intended for use in a wide range of applications including insulating foams, rigid foams, flexible foams and CASE — coatings, adhesives, sealants, and elastomers.
Fayetteville is hardly the first town to build an industry around a dominant local employer. But Wal-Mart isn't just another local employer. It's the largest company in the U.S., with 60,000 suppliers, aiming to transform its operations, products, and services in a greener direction. "It has changed my world," says Coody. "You don't get more business-oriented and more bottom line than Wal-Mart, and when they got behind the environmental push, the sustainability push, that gave my position more credibility."
After listening to Coody talk about his town's transformation, I told him, "I get a sense that of all the things that this has changed most, it's you."
He agreed. "I have never been so excited in my life about the environmental movement. There's such attraction going on with trying to save the planet. It is an exciting, exciting time in history and to be right here in the middle of it. I couldn't have been a luckier person in the world than to be mayor of Fayetteville right now."
And I'm pretty sure Fayetteville is lucky to have him, too.