Celebration puts focus on '501'; events for Central Arkansas’ area code warmly welcomed

Sally Smith (left) of Cleveland, Miss. and her daughter Maria Gray (center) of Maumelle talk with Brandye Brater, an employee of Rick’s Farm Stand, while checking out the variety of jams and relishes for sale Saturday at the opening day of the Little Rock Farmers’ Market. The farmers’ market also celebrated 501 Day and the re-opening of Ottenheimer Market Hall. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/502market/..(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

David and Joyce Livingston were in Little Rock's South Main area with their daughter and granddaughter Saturday when the crowd and music at 13th and Main streets caught their attention. They decided to stop and look around at what was the inaugural 501 Fest. They said it turned out to be a blessing.

"I'm thankful for this opportunity to be with family, especially with covid and all that, just to be out," David Livingston said.

May 1 corresponds with the Central Arkansas 501 area code, so cities throughout the region held events and celebrations to mark 501 Day, an idea that the Downtown Little Rock Partnership came up with.

"We ran it past other cities in the 501, and everyone loved it and was immediately on board," Ellen Lampe, partnership director of communications, said. "It kind of snowballed into this holiday."

Several cities celebrate their area codes' corresponding dates every year. Among them are St. Louis (314) on March 14, Memphis (901) on Sept. 1 and Rockford, Ill., (815) on Aug. 15.

Lenee Carroll recently moved back to North Little Rock from Tulsa, which is in the 918 area code and holds events on Sept. 18. She said she was excited to hear that the Little Rock area had picked up on the trend.

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"To me, it's a great way to restart [after] this mess," she said, gesturing at her mask and referring to the covid-19 pandemic.

Carroll attended Saturday's Ballet Arkansas matinee performance in North Little Rock's Argenta Plaza with Brandie Maldonado, who also lives in North Little Rock.

"I would like to see this really grow because it gives us the opportunity to get out and mingle not only with our neighbors but also people from outside areas like Benton and Bryant to come into town that don't normally come to Little Rock," Maldonado said. "When I grew up down in that area, you never came to Little Rock for anything because you didn't need to, but this brings more people in to experience what Little Rock and North Little Rock have to offer."

"How many young children [here] get the opportunity to actually experience a ballet?" Carroll said.

North Little Rock's lineup of events ranged from the ballet at the plaza to disc golf at Burns Park, as well as several businesses and restaurants offering $5.01 bargains.

Highlighting local businesses was always a goal in coordinating 501 Day, Lampe said.

"I think now, more than ever, local businesses could use this day of love, so I think it comes at a very fitting time," she said.

Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hot Springs and Sherwood also featured 501 Day events and business deals. Sherwood held a block party and a concert Saturday evening, and the Sherwood Chamber of Commerce held a food drive with the goal of collecting 501 nonperishable items to donate to a local nonprofit, chamber president Kellie Wall said.

The seven-hour event in Little Rock's South Main neighborhood included live music and several tents offering food, drinks, art, clothing and other products for sale. Vendors included local establishments such as Lost Forty Brewing and Raduno Brick Oven and Barroom. Businesses from out of town included Mosto Creations, a Van Buren shop that sells handmade leather clothing and accessories.

Maxi Dominguez of Little Rock owns La Rosa Antigua clothing shop and said he appreciated seeing so many people attend 501 Fest, especially people of all ages, in support of local businesses and artists.

"I think that we're finally starting to see this transition within Arkansas, [and] specifically Little Rock, where we're starting to really take ownership of our community-centric culture," Dominguez said. "I think now as the times have progressed, we have more small businesses starting to surface, more artists and creatives wanting to do things for themselves. I think we're really starting to unify ourselves, and I think this is a great example of what that unification looks like."

The first 501 Day coincided with opening day of the Little Rock Farmers Market. Last year, the market was limited to only food sales because of the pandemic and booths needing to be safe distances apart.

Vendors and the crowds returned in full force Saturday, said George Bond, a produce vendor from Sherwood, who has participated in the market for five years. He said the crowd was "above average" for the first market of the year, and he expects high attendance for the rest of the season after the pandemic limited activity for more than a year.

"I want to see smiles," Bond said with a laugh. "I'm so tired of looking at masks."