Understanding and investing in what makes NW Arkansas special is a key element of Jeremy Pate’s work at the Walton Family Foundation, one that has resulted in one of the nation’s best greenway and trail systems for users of all abilities and interests.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Pate: Jeremy Pate
Cohen: The natural beauty of Northwest Arkansas is a rich tableau on which to paint a network of trails for recreation, commuting, and building community. Coming up on The Movement podcast, Jeremy Pate of the Walton Family Foundation shares what makes their region special and what others can do to replicate some of their success. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: A few months ago I had lunch with Jared Draper of the Tooled Design Group, and I asked him if he had any ideas of folks that I should have on the podcast. He mentioned my guest today, Jeremy Pate, who before his current role as the senior program officer at the Walton Family Foundation was Senior Development Services Director for the City of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Jeremy’s background in both the nonprofit and the public side of things plus some of the projects he’s been working on in Arkansas seem like a perfect fit for The Movement podcast. So welcome to The Movement, Jeremy.
Pate: Yeah, thank you. Appreciate it, Josh.
Cohen: You know, I’ve never been to Arkansas. It’s one of the few states I haven’t been to, so maybe start by just introducing us to Northwest Arkansas. What makes it so unique?
Pate: First, I’d say we need to fix that.
Pate: Northwest Arkansas is an amazing place to have grown up. I’m a native of Arkansas originally, and so born and raised here. I lived in Colorado for a while after college, but the lure of Northwest Arkansas really pulled me back here. And I think that’s really sort of the kind of key factor for the growth in this region. And why I’m back here, honestly, is that it just is a special place. We have rolling hills; we have amazing woodlands; we have amazing trail systems, all those types of things that really kind of help increase quality of life and improve the ability for a family to be raised here, a great education system, you know, all those sort of calling cards that you think about in wonderfully and rapidly growing places. So I think from that perspective as well.
And as I think about your topic of mobility and its larger form, you know, growing places have issues like any other place—right—mobility and congestion and affordability. And so those are the things that as I grew into my career as an urban planner and now in this sort of philanthropic space those are places where my passions lie. And I think that Northwest Arkansas really, really is—it’s a critical place to be working right now.
I think just to give you a context of the place, you know, we are not a large metro area. I think a lot of people would drive around here and think, you know, “This is relatively suburban,” but what’s interesting is it’s also got these amazing little downtowns that are really unique. They are really—they’re put together well; they’re vibrant. We’re a region that kind of spans a corridor along I-49 in the northwest part of Arkansas. And we’re about a three-hour drive from Kansas city, a couple hours from Tulsa, so major metro areas aren’t that far away. But we’re sort of a little tucked away place here.
But what’s also interesting is we’ve got three Fortune 500 companies, you know, a university with 30,000 students. So it’s a fast-growing place with a lot of natural beauty, a lot of assets, a growing entrepreneurial seen, a great economy, so a lot of things going for this small slice of the heartland of America really.
Cohen: Wow. You know, and parts of that really remind me of where I grew up, which is Asheville, North Carolina. And it has many of those same characteristics—not the Fortune 500 companies or the large university. It’s got a university—a couple—but not that same scale as the University of Arkansas. But many of the other parts really kind of resonate with me. I can see why just like a lot of people are attracted to the Asheville area a lot of people are attracted to Northwest Arkansas. I imagine retirees are part of that growth as well.
Pate: For sure. And, you know, Asheville is a great comparable if you want to think about sort of the scale of the place and, you know, how individuals are attracted to those natural amenities, places where there’s a relatively low cost of living but you’re still accessible to the greater urban areas within either drive or a quick flight. And so I think those are things that have made this place attractive. And you’re right; the low cost of living certainly helps with retirement.
We have an entire community that originally was founded primarily around—it’s north of Bentonville here in Northwest Arkansas, a community called Bella Vista—entirely a golf course community really focused on retiring living. And it’s funny because as this region continues to grow that’s changing over somewhat. Young families are moving in because that’s more affordable. You know, it’s close to the jobs; it’s close to a lot of the amenities and the growing outdoor recreation opportunities that we have in the region. So you’re right; Asheville is a great comparable there.
Cohen: So you are currently a senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. And the reason why I kind of—beyond the connection to Northwest Arkansas, which, again, is an area I just didn’t have much exposure to, so I wanted to kind of—I wanted to get the exposure, and I wanted to share it with our audience as well. You know, it struck me when I was talking to Jared. He said, “You know, they are making such a huge investment in bike and pedestrian trails.” And I just thought that was really, really interesting. I was like, “Huh. That wasn’t necessarily something that I would have necessarily expected.” I didn’t really know much. So I’d love to maybe get some context if you wouldn’t mind. Of all the potential places for investment, why has the Walton Family Foundation chosen to invest in this network of bike and access for pedestrians?
Pate: Great question. And I think I probably need to back up just a little bit to give you both that context of why we invest in that area of interest but also why we invest in this particular place, Northwest Arkansas. So, you know, the Walton Family Foundation is a philanthropic organization, and we’re based here. We’ve been here for over 30 years near where Sam and Helen Walton founded Walmart, and this is where they called home in Bentonville, Arkansas. And so we’re a family-led foundation, and one of the programs that we support here is called the Home Region program. And so it’s a place-based program, and the two counties here in Northwest Arkansas, Benton and Washington County, are two of the areas where we focus a lot of that work.
As you mentioned, I’m a program officer, and I manage a portfolio of grantmaking around something we call preserving a sense of place; and so it’s really thinking about the authentic—you know, what is authentic about this place that makes Northwest Arkansas special and how do we sustain that over time? And part of that is really thinking about a number of different factors. And so, you know, everything from supporting the vibrant downtowns that we have, to preserving the green spaces that we have in close proximity to the residents that are moving here or are already here, and then also providing access to those green spaces.
And so we do that in a lot of ways through our greenway trails, so our paved paths that crisscross all across the community and connect the various communities that we have that make up this region and also a lot of the mountain bike trails that we also support. So providing people and increasing their appreciation, both residents and visitors, for the green spaces and those special places that we have. And so really, I think, what’s unique about some of the work that we do here and our interest in cycling generally is not only for a transportation purpose but a recreation purpose; it really is to connect people to the places they want to go most.
And so from a transportation perspective maybe that’s school, maybe that’s work, maybe that’s utilitarian uses on a daily basis, maybe that’s the transit strop, wherever it happens to be, really getting people there efficiently, conveniently, and safely. And then, I think, another piece of that is also—you know, as I come home from work on any given day and want to take my kids to the park or want to take my kids for a mountain bike ride, getting them there safely but also, you know, being able to have those amenities in real close proximity.
So that’s really spawned an investment strategy around increasing not only the density but, you know, the mileage and the quality of our trail system here so that it’s safe and approximate to the residents that live here. And we’ve really seen a lot of buy-in from the public. Multiple cities throughout this region now have cycling coordinators or bike-ped coordinators added to their city staff. They have really started to invest millions of dollars into side paths and trails and all these different things that connect people, again, to the places they want to go and trying to get them there safely. And so—yeah—it’s been a great ride for the last few years as I’ve worked here at the foundation.
Cohen: There’s a couple things that jumped out to me when you were sharing that. So one is this preserving a sense of place. And I really like that, because I wonder what—and this is maybe hard for y’all to track programmatically, but I’d be curious whether you have any data or anecdotal stories around how shifting the way people are engaging with the community. You know, so if their dominant mode of transportation used to be a car or it even is a car 99% of the time because of where they work and where they live but the access to these trails allows them to kind of experience their community in a different way and helps them understand or appreciate it in a different way, you know, like, “Wow. I didn’t realize either how close something was or I didn’t even know this cultural artifact was here,” you know, have you heard anything like that from folks to really kind of connect the work you’re doing to really that sense of place? Right? Like, what makes Northwest Arkansas so special and, like, really how getting someone out of a car perhaps or getting them to experience something differently kind of opens that up to them?
Pate: Yeah. It’s a good question. I don’t know that I have the best answer from a data perspective, and I think those are super-qualitative type of measures, like these experiential things that are hard to measure. Although we are a learning organization, and we’re constantly seeking ways to do that. I can tell you just from my experience, you know, we originally approached this work from, you know, I think, probably—you know, we work in a five-year strategy, so we’re in our fifth year of a strategic plan right now and really actually spending a lot of time thinking about the impact that we as a foundation but also our partners on the ground have really made in this region with, you know, over 400 miles of trails now in the region to enjoy.
And, you know, we’ve done a couple of things. One, a couple years ago we commissioned a study, an economic impact study essentially of what does this mean from business benefit and a health benefit to our region. And so we have data behind that. We also have a quality-of-life study we do every couple of years that really starts to measure, like, how do people feel about trails, how do people feel about overall quality of life, a number of different areas that we published out on our website, in Northwest Arkansas. And consistently trails rank pretty high on the list of amenities that the region really appreciates and wants more of.
I think what we’ve also seen is in public input sessions and throughout city government—you know, we kind of track these types of things, you know, public input sessions about bike-ped plans or park master plans or comprehensive land use and mobility, things of that nature. As cities go through the machinations of their planning processes, these types of amenities and transportation modes continue to track positively and favorably among residents. And, I think, that’s really sort of the test of a successful program, is that it’s no longer a catalytic type of investment; it’s really sort of the grassroots groundswell of public support beginning to really sort of demand this out of public government in some way.
And so I spent 14 years in the public sector before I came to the foundations, and so I clearly know what that means to an elected official when you have multiple citizens either at a public input meeting or at a council meeting, you know, saying, “No. This trail needs to be here because it matters to us.” And so I think that’s really probably the best indicator of what we can see as success, is that cities around the region really are demanding these types of things. And, you know, you mentioned Jared and their work here. Toole’s work here has really, I think, been able to explore that in greater detail in cities throughout the region in terms of their bike-ped plans and really starting to think about what are those priority connections. No longer are we just simply building a trail to walk on, but we’re building trails and safer streets to connect people and get them to the destinations that they’re trying to get to.
So I would rather take my eight-year-old daughter on a bike ride to a mountain bike trail and come back or to a park to ride, you know, get on the swings and come back than putting my bikes on the car and drive to that trailhead and then get on the trailhead and go somewhere. So that’s sort of the next iteration and next evolution of what we’re trying to think about over the next few years about how can we better even, you know, create safer streets. The highest percentage of public spaces in our communities are our public streets. And how can we make them better, safer places for all?
Cohen: Yeah, definitely. And that’s certainly been a theme of the podcast a couple weeks ago with Warren Logan and the City of Oakland and how they’ve opened up 74 miles of streets in Oakland during this pandemic. The other thing that kind of jumped out as you were saying that earlier, which kind of ties in very nicely with what you just shared, was one of my favorite Jan Gehl quotes is, “Something happens, something happens, something happens.” And so I kind of like how you have made this investment and you have said this is important, and then it’s kind of, like, built from there. Right? You said the other cities have been starting to hire resources to kind of, like, reinforce that, and then you’ve got the citizens that have—you know, and then you kind of have this virtual circle or this flywheel effect which is just really, really neat. And so I’m kind of—I’m really fascinated by that. I guess it’s not really a question there as much as just I really appreciate kind of that aspect of the work you’re doing and how it’s kind of starting that flywheel and then kind of building from there.
Pate: We talk a lot. Philanthropy was a new sector for me. You know, I didn’t come into this with training in that area. I came in as an urban planner, a landscape architect, so understanding land use and understanding how people relate to the places that they’re in best, preserve a sense of place was, you know, the natural fit for me. So I think that having this strategy has really been key for not only me and my growth as a professional but also, you know, just having—working in a place where I’m improving the quality of life for myself and my family and my friends and everyone, my neighbors, you know, it’s a wonderful place to be.
But I think you’re exactly right with that quote. You know, we have in some ways the ability to convene, and that’s the greatest power that we have as an organization. We can convene public and private partners; we can bring people together to share their ideas and then oftentimes be—just have that one catalytic investment potentially. Oftentimes we’ll talk about what that was here in Northwest Arkansas, and it’s the Razorback Regional Greenway. You know, this is this 37-mile trail system that took advantage of a TIGER II grant a number of years ago. As a foundation, we were able to match that grant along with several cities. So it connects now multiple cities along 37 miles. And, you know, it was a way that we could pull everyone in the region together and all around one project, around one catalytic project and create this sort of spine that linked multiple schools and parks and downtowns together. And it’s something now that we feel like was the cog for all of the trail systems that have happened since then.
So everything is kind of built off of this spine, and the communities really understand the health benefit, the economic benefit, the social impacts, you know, the way to—you know, we have twice a year, not this spring unfortunately, but twice a year we normally have a Square 2 Square ride, so go riding from the square in Downtown Bentonville, you know, 30 miles to the south, the square in Downtown Fayetteville where University of Arkansas is. And, you know, you have 2,000-plus riders just on a social ride having a great time, and that’s just the community coming together, and that’s really—I mean, like you said, it’s building on the success of those initial investments, and hopefully will continue in the future.
Cohen: So I think that’s a really neat way to frame that, you know, with that spine of the Razorback Regional Greenway being the key linchpin there to kind of have all of those kind of pieces tie into. I think about this a lot though, and I’d love to get your perspective on this. So the benefit of that approach, obviously, is that now you have this almost, like, landmark project that everyone is committed to. It’s regional in nature. Right? It’s going 30-something miles. Right? Everyone kind of has a touchpoint with it, you know, and so forth. So I love that piece of it.
The flipside is it’s a lot more complex than a small, local project that someone might call a small win. Right? So y’all—it sounds like the way you framed it is, like, you’ve got this big win that then allows all these other small wins to kind of tie into it, versus the other approach I see some people take strategically, which is, “Hey, we’ve got to get a small win. Got to get a small win and build from there.” So I’m kind of just curious. Like, did that kind of factor in at all, kind of this small-versus-big approach or on kind of how y’all went after that approach? Because I’m always fascinated by that difference.
Pate: Yeah. No, it’s a great question because I think we constantly are thinking about these larger impact projects versus sort of strategic, incremental approaches, you know, tactical urbanism type approaches. And, you know, fortunately for us we’re able to dabble in a bit of all of that. And our partners here on the ground and the grantees that we work with range from very small nonprofits with a staff of one or two, which really don’t have the capacity to do the huge, regional projects, to someone like the regional planning commission or MPO who does have the capacity really to think about large, federal grants and different things like that that are much more regional in impact.
So, you know, I think it takes—for us in this region, I feel like the successes have been on both scales at either end of the spectrum. And so, you know, I think about how our mountain bike trail system started literally with a couple miles of handbuilt trails that someone experienced and said, “You know, this is really the beginning of something special. Let’s continue this. Let’s continue that momentum.” And so in some ways sort of that grassroots philosophy and approach is still with us today.
You know, we have a number of volunteer organizations and volunteer nonprofits and coalitions that maintain our trails, maintain our natural surface trails. And so on any given day, even during this crisis, you know, you can see socially separated trail builds going on, you know, and trail maintenance. And, you know, I’ll come up on a trail this weekend. I came up on a group of three or four building this little bridge along this drainage area. And so I think it takes both. It’s kind of like a both-and for us, you know, in terms of that approach. It’s the small projects that you can learn from and then you take those learning and maybe you scale up. And it’s also the larger projects that you learn from, but obviously on a much bigger scale the risk is much greater, and so it takes a lot more coordination and coalition building to get to that point.
Cohen: Sure. So, you know, not everyone has a Walton Family Foundation in their backyard. I mean, that’s obviously a tremendous, tremendous asset. And so this may be a hard questions, obviously, because you are there. Right? But I’m curious if there’s anything that you would recommend for folks that are potentially replicatable in their community, that they could have a similar impact on their community even if they don’t have an asset like the Walton Family Foundation right in their backyard.
Pate: Yeah. This is not a unique question, I’ll tell you, Josh. Because, you know, we do bring—a lot of folks come to Bentonville. And, you know, we have a half-a-million people in the region; we have a lot of visitors here. You know, a couple of years ago we had over 90,000 and growing, I think, tourists just on the mountain bike trail, people using the mountain bike trails. And so, I think, that’s something that we’ve recognized that we are unique as a foundation. There isn’t another large foundation in the region doing the type of work that we do, but I think there are several lessons that I’ve learned in the years I worked here, but we’ve also learned from peers across the country that gets to this question.
And I think the first thing I’d say is that over the past five years in our trail development specifically we’ve learned to ensure that those who want—you know, trying to get those who want access to the trails, to get them, and can access them. And so we constantly sort of preach that message to folks at our trail building clinics or as we’re going to conferences throughout the country or talking to others. Accessibility is so key, and so that’s a big learning, that it doesn’t matter if you’re investing a million dollars in a trail or you’re out for your first two-mile trail build. Ensuring that you can provide access will only sort of build the groundswell of support from those in the community. And so I think that for us that means ensuring we’re really thoughtful about the skill levels and the proximity to paved paths, to tail heads, to neighborhoods. You know, we think about things like the demographics of neighborhoods and trying to make sure accessibility and proximity are key to those. So those are big learnings that we have that I think are transferrable to kind of any community throughout the country.
I think there’s another piece though that can and should be really replicated in other communities, and that’s what I mentioned earlier about convening of public and private entities, because the power of that really can be—we have a testament here in our systems, our trail systems here. One thing we’ve been able to do at the foundation is bring sort of everyone to the table to think about what we can build together and what are those possibilities even without catalytic, you know, movement of philanthropy. You know, everyone needs to be working together toward that common goal before we can get anything done.
I would say, without our partners on the ground, we’re an idea. You know, we’re an idea-generating factory, but without the grantees and those folks out there doing the hard work it wouldn’t get done. And so really convening is something that we’ve been able to do and I think is also replicable in other communities. So, yeah, I think that’s a big piece of it. One of the examples I use oftentimes about the own accessibility piece, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is located here just off of Downtown Bentonville.
And the Razorback Regional Greenway, which I mentioned earlier, our 37-mile trail system goes right through the middle of Downtown Bentonville and goes past and through Crystal Bridges’ museum grounds. And we’ve recently partnered with a local nonprofit, Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers, to construct a natural surface sort of mountain bike, flowy trail right beside the greenway. And what we found is that over the past several months the usage just increased dramatically because if you’re a dad or a mom and your child is wanting to dabble in their first time on a mountain bike on a trail, you can be on a greenway and the child can be right there next to you. So you’re not having to go off into the woods somewhere and, you know, ride your bike where no one can see you. You’re right there.
Conversely, if a family is visiting here in Bentonville and mom is an expert mountain bike rider off doing all of the tricks and everything else that you can do here, the rest of the family can simply ride from downtown through the museum grounds. And it’s just it’s completely accessible, and so that just makes a big difference in how trails are perceived, the safety of them, the accessibility of them. It’s a big factor that we’ve learned here, and we’re trying to share with our colleagues and others across the country as they visit here. You know, what’s the secret of the success? In a lot of ways you’re looking at it because you’re so close to it.
Cohen: Sure. No, I love that. I love that. That’s a great thing that everyone can bring forward to their community. So I want to wrap up with this, which is we each have to—right? I call it filling up our proverbial cup here with new ideas. Right? You know, and I’d be curious to see where you tend to turn to fill up your cup. Where do you go to get new ideas or to challenge yourself as it relates to the field that you’re in and getting better and so forth?
Pate: Well, outside of podcasts like yours—[LAUGHTER]—you know, I think the thing that as a foundation we’ve done well is—and the current climate really is difficult to do this, but really travel to other places has been such a key ingredient for us to learn. I think most people would recognize that when you go someplace new and try something different, you know, it always—like, it spurs, like, “Ah, what if we did that at home?” you know, or, “What if we thought about it this way?” And I’ll give a couple examples.
So a few years ago we had a group trip to Minneapolis and sort of a sidebar trip. I’d never been to Duluth, and so I went up and checked out Duluth. And there’s an amazing trail system. I met some folks up there and the mayor there, and there’s an amazing soft-surface trail system called the Duluth Traverse. And so I rode some of the Duluth Traverse. I was absolutely sort of blown away by how you could connect small neighborhoods to downtown, to all these bike parks, to a ski lift, and a restaurant, and grab a beer, and then continue on. And, you know, that really just kind of spurred our imagination back here when we came back and started talking about the lessons learned on those trips, on that trip. In particular was, “Why couldn’t we do that here?” We have a ton of assets here; we have partners in land conservation who have conserved these properties, and they would love to have people access them. We have local trail builders. You know, how can we begin to sort of connect the dots?
And so that’s exactly what we’re working on. We’re working on a number of these little traverse sections that are beginner-level friendly trails that allow a family or whomever to ride from downtown to get to their favorite park and, you know, go through some neighborhoods, go through some soft-surface connection, really explore the region and community in a way that you haven’t. So that’s been one example. And I think another one is that we’ve also as a foundation convened, elected, and appointed officials from our region to go on international trips. So we last fall took a trip to the Netherlands, and we were able to really sort of dive into a learning journey over a week around transportation modes, you know, how that impacts mobility from a train-bike system, you know, and how do we think about that from intersections of land use and transit and cycling and what lessons there can we learn about how we’re very different and may not be applicable in our environment but also what are those things that might actually fit here in Northwest Arkansas.
And we can build upon the strength that we’ve already created in our own trail systems and, you know, everything from what does bikeshare look like here, to how are the streets designed. And we have some mayors that got really excited about that, and, you know, they’re moving forward in projects already that are sort of incorporating some of those lessons. You know, maybe they’re small, like you mentioned, strategic and incremental at first, but hopefully they’ll build into even better opportunities to, again, fill that proverbial cup and not only from the foundation side but from the region as a whole.
Cohen: Awesome. Where can folks learn more about the Walton Family Foundation and the work you’re doing there in Northwest Arkansas and maybe even some of the great trails that you’ve mentioned?
Pate: So there are a number of resources out there, and we do like to publish our work, honestly. And so a lot of the maps and a lot of the work that we do can be found in a couple places. So WaltonFamilyFoundation.org is our website. There are some learning tabs there that you can, you know, learn about the grants and learn about the research we’ve done. I mentioned an economic impact analysis; that resource is there. There’s also some things that are sharable with other communities. We wanted to make that sort of an open source type of project. There are a number of nonprofit resources here in our region. Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers has a great website showing the different trails. And, of course, you can follow them on Instagram and Twitter as well as the Walton Family Foundation on those social medial platforms as well.
So, yeah, I mean, I think we love to share the success of the region because, I mean, as I mentioned, I’ve been to Asheville to check out that opportunity, and I just mentioned Duluth and Minneapolis, and people come here doing the same thing. You know, we host trips here all the time, and so we learn from one another. That’s how as communities we become more resilient. And, I think, in this time those types of conversations are even more meaningful, honestly, because we’re thinking about how do we learn from one another, how do we become more resilient communities throughout this and bounce back even better than ever.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, that is definitely true. And I think we will get through this, and I think there will be some adaptation, but I think one thing that I hope will always be true is that there will always be time for us to be outside and connected with nature, and I think you’re providing a great way to do that and helping facilitate that with the Walton Family Foundation. So thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to join me on The Movement podcast, Jeremy. And best of luck in your work, and stay safe.
Pate: Thanks, Josh. I appreciate it very much.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.