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The Beatles a major economic engine in Walnut Ridge and surrounding communities

Stock photo of The Beatles

Pool hall owner Jack Allison saw a peculiar aircraft in flight over his hometown late night Sept. 18, 1964. It was large, and as he spied it from the pool hall parking lot, it was clear to him the plane was headed to the Walnut Ridge Airport.

Allison instructed three teenage boys to investigate it. When they arrived at the runway, the plane door opened and immortals strolled onto the tarmac. It was the only time the Beatles – George, John, Paul, and Ringo – ever set foot in the Natural State as a group.

For five years, this notoriety has led thousands to the Beatles at the Ridge Festival in the Walnut Ridge. As many as 15,000 people could attend the free festival that begins Friday and runs through Saturdaynight, Mayor Charles Snapp told Talk Business & Politics. Before the festival was started in 2011, Lawrence County generated virtually no tourism dollars.

The festival has garnered worldwide attention. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other publications have done extensive feature stories. A list of the top ten places to view Beatles history around the world was released a few years ago, and Walnut Ridge was listed as the fourth place to visit. The town appears on many Google searches involving the famed musical group.

“There’s no denying how much this has boosted our local economy,” Snapp said. “It’s second only to agriculture in how important it is for our economy.”

Walnut Ridge has two monuments dedicated to the Rock-n-Roll era. The Beatles monument, a 10-foot by 20-foot aluminum mural, depicts the famed “Abbey Road” album. It was handcrafted by local businessman Danny West who spent thousands of hours carving the tribute. He did it free of charge.

The city also sports another monument, the Guitar Walk. Famed musicians Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and others played at honky tonks and other venues along U.S. 67 that went through Walnut Ridge. This tribute, erected just south of the Lawrence County Chamber building on U.S. 67, is shaped like a guitar on the ground. Visitors can walk on it, listen to recorded displays about these and other musicians who got their start in this part of Arkansas. The two monuments serve as an axis the festival revolves around.

Tourism is now an economic driver in the county. At least $17.5 million was spent in the county by tourists in 2015, according to the state. It generated 140 jobs directly related to tourism; it garnered $1 million in state tax revenues; and added almost $400,000 to local sales tax coffers. The festival is the primary tourist attraction.

Snapp, who has been in the sport duck hunting business, thought political and business leaders had the wrong ideas about how to generate jobs in the region a decade ago. Nearly all wanted to attract an industrial job provider. He wanted to develop tourism. He needed a hook.

“Everybody thought me and my wife (Jackie) were crazy,” he said.

Walnut Ridge only had one distinction that he thought could work. The Beatles landed at the airport that night on their way from Dallas to New York. The foursome was tired, and they decided to take some time off from their tour and rest at the Reed Pigman dude ranch, near Alton, Missouri. Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the region, so it was decided that Walnut Ridge’s Airport, a former pilot training base during World War II, would be the best place to land.

A smaller plane waited on the runway to whisk the band members away when they arrived. Paul McCartney was scared to fly in the small plane, and he left in a truck. The band came back two days later. Teenagers throughout the Ozarks learned the famed band was in the region, and turned out in full force to greet them before they left. Snapp’s sister, Carrie Mae Snapp, along with a few others, sneaked onto the plane and stole items, including cigarette butts and pillow cases.

Danny West showed Snapp his concept of the monument he wanted to build. Immediately, Snapp said he recognized the potential. The Guitar Walk was proposed. A festival was born.

“I knew I could sell this … I knew we could do this,” he said.

The monuments draw visitors on a day-to-day basis, but the festival hauls in a massive crowd. More than 120 vendors will be at this year’s event. This is the first year in which the city had to turn vendors away, Snapp said. The festival always culminates with the Liverpool Legends, a Beatles parody group from Branson, performing.

Festivals can generate local tax dollars, but they can also cost cities money if they’re not run right, Snapp said. It costs about $30,000 to organize and put the festival together, and that’s generated through private donations and sponsors. Off-duty police officers and firefighters volunteer their time at the event, Snapp said. Jumpstart Ministries, a drug, and alcohol rehabilitation home cleans up the downtown. Snapp and a few other volunteers get up early Sunday morning to finish the cleanup job, he said.

“This is really important to our community … we have to do everything we can to sell and promote it,” he said.

Originally written by George Jared, Talk Business & Politics.  Talk Business & Politics is a content partner of KASU.  Their show can be heard Saturday evenings at 3:30 on KASU.  See more, visit there site here.

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