by Kate Knable
Posted 8/22/2011 12:00 am
Updated 1 year ago
Instigators said it began in 2009 as brainstorming for touristy ways for Walnut Ridge to celebrate Gov. Mike Beebe’s designation of U.S. Highway 67 in Jackson, Lawrence and Randolph counties as “Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67.”
Ideas were tossed around in Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce tourism committee meetings in the town of Walnut Ridge, population 4,890.
Eventually, the seven-member committee decided on two permanent attractions, both to be installed in downtown Walnut Ridge. The first is the Beatle’s “Abbey Road” album cover, recreated as steel silhouettes with a hand-etched aluminum background, to commemorate the Beatles’ lone visit to Arkansas, which included a brief arrival at and departure from the Walnut Ridge airport in 1964. The second is a 100-foot-by-40-foot concrete walkway in the shape of a guitar, to be surrounded by metal cutout figures representing the iconic musicians who used to travel and perform along U.S. 67.
The seven-member tourism committee has raised at least $40,000 so far for both projects, calling on local and regional businesses and Walnut Ridge residents, as well as tracking down Walnut Ridge High School alumni scattered across Arkansas and other states, to donate cash to pay for the tourist attractions.
Walnut Ridge metal worker Dan West volunteered to create the Beatles sculpture, spending more than 500 hours so far etching details into heavy aluminum. JMS Russel Metals Corp. in Jonesboro donated the steel plates and aluminum.
City property owner and tourism committee member Charles Snapp bought and donated downtown land on which to exhibit the Beatles sculpture and to serve as Beatles Park.
Louise Harrison, Beatles guitarist George Harrison’s sister, volunteered her Beatles tribute band, the Liverpool Legends, to perform at the unveiling of the Beatles exhibit next month.
The collective response is resulting in what Walnut Ridge leaders hope is the revival of the city’s downtown.
Snapp said he believes the new tourist attractions will appeal to the approximately 50,000 residents of Lawrence, Randolph and Sharp counties who live within a 20-mile span outside Walnut Ridge, as well as to visitors traveling the highways that cross or pass the town, and even, perhaps, to music lovers from all over the world.
Such visitors could then patronize Walnut Ridge’s downtown businesses, he said.
Within the past six months, Snapp has bought seven rundown commercial properties in Walnut Ridge’s neglected downtown with the firm belief that the city is coming back.
“It’s just one of those weird things that seemed to fall in place. The timing’s right enough that we were willing to invest,” Snapp said.
Snapp and J.R. Rogers, former Walnut Ridge mayor and Arkansas legislator, partnered this month to offer no- or low-rent commercial space in the city’s downtown to draw new businesses. In exchange for the cut-rate rent, businesses must commit to renovating the dilapidated structures fully and then paying higher rent after five years.
Snapp named the program “Invest in Your Dreams.”
In an email to chamber leaders and other Walnut Ridge property owners, he said, “The idea is, if a person has a workable business plan, that generates jobs and sales tax, along with some money to invest in renovating the property, we will work with them on a discounted rental price.”
So far, two of Snapp’s properties have been mostly demolished and will be replaced by Beatles Park.
A new frozen yogurt shop with an art gallery in two storefronts and an art and handmade gift store are among the first takers of Snapp’s discount-rent offer.
“There’s an excitement going on. They know we believe, or we wouldn’t be investing,” Snapp said.
Rogers and Snapp plan to approach other landowners who have vacant commercial buildings to ask them to partner in working to attract new businesses to the area.
“It’s a good thing. I want to be part of good things,” Rogers said. “I just hated to see all the old buildings I grew up around … disappear, so I bought them.”
Rogers has lived in the community for decades, owns the store All Star Music in town and was the author of the legislation that renamed the section of U.S. 67 that cuts through Walnut Ridge. He also owns eight storefronts in addition to All Star and a shopping center in the downtown area.
Rogers is offering reduced rent on his eight empty, rundown stores as part of Snapp’s program.
The 13 storefronts that have sold in Walnut Ridge (including the seven Snapp bought) in the past six months may not all directly be linked to the tourism committee’s efforts, but Snapp and other community leaders see them as good omens.
According to Snapp, two current Walnut Ridge business proprietors bought four of the 13 shops, two of which they already occupied. JDW Inc. of Jonesboro bought stores housing a beauty salon and a new restaurant.
The sale of 13 of about 36 total downtown storefronts represents more commercial transactions than Walnut Ridge saw in the previous 10 years combined, Snapp said.
West, the metal worker, is opening the yogurt shop and says he believes the town can support new business, in addition to the existing stores.
“Our town really needs some zip, for lack of a better term,” he said. “We’ve got some momentum and I just want to build on that."