It wasn’t that long ago when Jeffersonville played the role of the quintessential sleepy little river town. For years, Jeffboat was the last enduring reminder of the shipbuilding epicenter the place once was.
But a walking connection to Louisville in the form of the Big Four Bridge, as well as the Ohio River Greenway and additional development to the west, has helped throw added fuel onto a fire that began burning several years ago as downtown businesses began springing up and the waterfront slowly began to take shape as more than just something to help hold back the Ohio River.
Even when Jeffboat finally closed its doors last year after nearly two centuries in operation, taking some 220 jobs with it, the Indiana city of about 45,000 never flinched.
Still, when Abbey Road on the River decided to move to Jeffersonville from Louisville’s Belvedere three years ago, it seemed to some like an unlikely fit. But it has worked and worked well.
The Beatles-themed festival returns for a third year starting Thursday, May 23, through Memorial Day, May 27, with dozens of bands, food, merchandise and more. Some 20,000 visitors are expected.
Jeffersonville stands prepared for the insurgence and plans to make the most of it. Luanne Matson, assistant director of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention & Tourism Bureau, said last year’s Abbey Road on the River had an economic impact on the area to the tune of about $1.3 million.
A Southern Indiana native, Matson remembers when Jeffersonville’s downtown had very little going for it. After moving to Arizona for several years, she returned in 2014.
“There’s so much more to it now,” she tells Insider. “It was already revitalizing when I got back. I think the Big Four Bridge opening really helped that. People started to take notice.”
Big Four Station opened in 2014 as well, featuring plenty of green space, fountains, a pavilion, restroom facilities and a playground, intended for continuous public use as well as event space, and Abbey Road on the River has been something of an exclamation point.
Longtime festival attendees from not just the Louisville area but around the country and beyond now flock to Jeffersonville each Memorial Day weekend, filling up nearby hotels such as the $15 million TownePlace Suites hotel at corner of Walnut and Mulberry streets downtown and patronizing the many shops and restaurants within walking distance of Big Four Station, where the festival is held.
They’ll have plenty to do and see this year.
A revitalization of Pearl Street, which is adjacent to Big Four Station Park, has led to the openings of Parlour Pizza, Pearl Street Taphouse, and Pearl Street Treats. On the nearby waterfront, there’s the high-end restaurant Portage House, Olive Leaf and the laid-back Clucker’s, among others, with Cox’s Hot Chicken just around the corner on Spring.
Once, there was Schimpff’s Confectionary on Spring Street and not much else. But the downtown street that dead ends at the RiverStage today is dotted with restaurants, shops and businesses, from The Red Yeti to H.M. Frank’s to Town (formerly Come Back Inn).
Shops such as Brilliant Bumblebee and Sugar Maples Antiques & Gifts are among several shopping attractions, and Schimpff’s has expanded and continues to draw crowds.
This year, Abbey Road on the River is upping the ante by bringing local food trucks into the festival.
Whereas much of the food at the Belvedere over the years was supplied by carnival vendors, Abbey Road visitors this year can fill up on local businesses like Orange Clover, 502 Café BBQ, Ramiro’s, The Celtic Pig and several other vendors.
The convention bureau was interested in hosting the festival, which is produced by Gary Jacob, in part because the music transcends generations, Matson says.
“A lot of people who go to the festival are introducing the Beatles to their grandkids,” she says, adding that the popular animated show “Beat Bugs” also uses Beatles music, which helps make it a family attraction.
“And there’s not a single curse word in the entire Beatles catalog,” she adds.
This year, festival attendees can see the presentation of a musical mash-up called “Abbey Road on the Dark side,” a blend of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” albums, performed by Colombia-based Classictone and Puerto Rico’s Jukebox Beatles.
Local harpist Erin Hall also will perform in the show. The performance is being held in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Abbey Road.”
In addition, School of Rock Louisville will showcase some of its young talent performing songs by the Beatles, the Who and others, and as usual, some 60 bands will perform, including headliners the Buckinghams, the Cowsills, the Grass Roots, along with Peter Asher and Jeremy Clyde. Wings drummer Geoff Britton will perform with the Cryers.
There will be a playground area for children, plenty of Beatles merchandise, interactive art installations and more. Also, Matson says the addition of trees in Big Four Station means more shade than ever before.
As Abbey Road on the River becomes more and more part of Jeffersonville’s growth, more and more people are embracing the changes in the festival’s tradition.
“It’s evolving into a great little festival,” she says, adding that the experience has helped the convention bureau when envisioning other festivals for the area. “It’s a great opportunity for everybody involved. It’s been great for the economic development of the city. It’s just really been a great experience all the way around.”
Tickets for Abbey Road on the River vary and can be purchased in advance.