LITTLE ROCK - Eight years ago, community leaders in Walnut Ridge decided their downtown needed urgent care. As the current Mayor Charles Snapp describes it, the town was on life-support.
I am telling the story of Walnut Ridge to applaud the town’s success in generating a second wind. Many businesses have opened and more are coming. I also offer the success as an encouragement to other small towns that are facing the challenge of redefining the future. Walnut Ridge’s revitalization is a combination of community spirit, creative thinking, private investment, an appreciation of history, and a lot of work.
An important element in the renewing of this railroad town is the inclusion of its downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 2010. The detailed survey of its buildings for the historic application found that the oldest building still standing was built in 1890.
The population of Walnut Ridge is about 5,000. It is about 130 miles northeast of Little Rock. It’s one of those towns that isn’t on the way to anywhere else. Before the renewal, there wasn’t much reason for out-of-towners to visit.
But four notable out-of-towners did find the town, and their short visit fifty years ago plays a part in the story. The young men were musicians from Liverpool, England, and they landed at the Walnut Ridge airport for about an hour in September 1964. Walnut Ridge has transformed that brief encounter with the Beatles into an attraction that draws thousands to its annual “Beatles at the Ridge” festival in September and attracts tourists all year long.
The legend of the Beatles’ brief invasion inspired a public outdoor art project by local metal artist Danny West. Danny donated 500 hours to create a 10-foot-by-20-foot metal replica of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. It’s a great backdrop for selfies.
Walnut Ridge also has capitalized on the musical legacy of the region, where many of the early legends of rock performed. The town built a 115-foot-long concrete Guitar Walk to honor some of those musicians, such as Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, who influenced the Beatles.
Walnut Ridge stands at the intersection of Abbey Road and the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway.
I know that the spirit of volunteerism and optimism are contagious, and the revitalized downtown Walnut Ridge is proof. One project leads to another as people see all that a town can accomplish.
About 15 downtown buildings have been renovated or are nearly ready to occupy. The benefits of this civic pride have spread beyond the historic district. Walnut Ridge has built a new ball field and is building a bike-and-hike trail.
Businesses report that the weekend of the Beatles’ festival is their second biggest after Black Friday. The sales-tax base continues to rise. The mayor estimates that there are at least 250 job openings within 15 miles of his office.
Walnut Ridge is one of many towns in Arkansas that is taking the initiative and meeting the challenges of the changing economy of the 21st century. Not every town has a visit by the Beatles to work with, but they all have something.