(I’ve just spent a month driving back and forth across America, with Rusty, as I do every summer, visiting small towns with big dreams. This summer is different, however – the dreams are literally astronomical. Once upon a time, Mark Twain used the predictability of an eclipse to save one of his characters from execution. Small cities across America struggling to recover from years of youth exodus and the collapse of manufacturing industries are hoping to use this year’s eclipse for a similar purpose).
For centuries, solar eclipses have been the subject of elaborate mythology. Perhaps animals have eaten the sun, or the gods are fighting, the stories suggest, or the sun itself has had it with stupid Earthlings and decides to take a break. Or perhaps it’s just a time to pray and ask for atonement and prosperity.
This year’s eclipse is no different.
Small towns across America, battered for years by the exodus of industries — many just about left for dead — are pulling together, hoping the two-minute event will provide a windfall so many need, and probably deserve. But while the darkness is easy to predict, no one knows if the tourism dollars are real or just another eclipse myth.
On Aug 21, for the first time in decades, much of America will be cast in midday darkness by a complete solar eclipse. Thousands of small communities will find themselves in the critical “zone of totality,” where the sun will be completely blocked by the moon. Perhaps millions will flock to the “zone,” hoping for a mystical experience. Cities are more pragmatically hoping to prosper from an economic experience, and yet fear they might be the victim of one instead.
Across America, hundreds of small towns are racing to ready themselves for what is sure to be an astronomically big deal. Just one example: Casper, Wyo. — expected to be an ideal viewing spot because of its consistent August weather — is hurriedly laying bricks for a new, previously-planned downtown plaza that will serve as the centerpiece of its weeklong eclipse festival. The price for the community of 59,000 is steep – the plaza is expected to cost $8.5 million, paid for by a mix of tax dollars and private donations. But with nearly every hotel booked for miles around, the city expects about 35,000 visitors, and it wants to put its best foot forward. Two new pubs nearby are also hurriedly racing to be open in time, says local real estate agent Cara Kurth.
The state of Wyoming expects 250,000 visitors total, or perhaps closer to half a million, equaling the state’s population.
“Some people are saying the state will double in size,” said Chris Mickey, public relations adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, to WyomingNews.com. “It’s just really hard to tell.
Similar stories of chasing tourism dollars can be found from coast to coast, right along the 80-mile-wide zone of totality. The eclipse will begin in the Pacific beach town Lincoln City, Ore., about two hours southwest of Portland, then cut a wide swath across states like, Idaho, Nebraska, and Missouri, and eventually leaves via Charleston, S.C. A remarkable 12 million Americans already live in the path of darkness, another 88 million live within 200 miles, and virtually all of the lower 48 is within a long day’s drive.
Nashville is the biggest city that will be cast in darkness, so it is probably best prepared for a rush of visitors. But smaller places are making a run for the money. Columbia, Mo., a quaint university town that is not exactly a stranger to big events — it hosts SEC football Saturdays in the fall — has been booked for months. Ask Expedia for a hotel room there on Aug. 20, and you’ll be directed to a casino on the Missouri River in Boonville 25 miles away, which says it has one room available for $325.
Stores in Columbia, and Casper, and just about everywhere else, are jam-packed with eclipse shirts (with free viewing glasses) and other memorabilia.
But will all the stuff sell? In one sense, the eclipse couldn’t come at a better time — the gods really helped out. It’s in summer. It’s even on a Monday, creating a three-day weekend.
Eclipse windfall skeptics worry that’s a blessing and a curse, however. It’ll just shift around some road trip spending, instead of creating new vacations, the thinking goes. So maybe it’ll be a wash.
On the other hand, there are a lot of ways things can go badly. Eclipse festivals could be a bust, as towns compete with each other for a finite group of visitors. Or worse, they could be a raging success. To borrow a metaphor from my other line of work, they could create a denial of service attack on city services very unfamiliar with large crowds. Roads will be clogged with traffic, Internet bandwidth will be unusable, gas stations will almost certainly run out of supplies, and there might even be water or electricity shortages. (A lesser, but real, concern is a shortage of alcohol, I’m told).
Towns are planning for this, of course, but that, too, is a double-edged sword. Mary Eschelbach Hansen, a professor of economics at American University, warned in the Palm Beach Post that expenses could outpace revenue generated.
Adding capacity costs money — and don’t forget, the eclipse will only last two minutes.
In Casper, the downtown renovations are about more than the eclipse, however. The city has wanted a new town square for some time so the eclipse just helped push a project over the finish line. A state grant also helped pay for it.
For the record, Anna Wilcox, executive director of the city’s eclipse festival, said the project is “unrelated” to the eclipse, despite the fact that the completion date for phase one is set for eclipse week. But Cox, like others, is struggling to calculate what will really happen on Aug. 21.
The city was told last fall that “eclipse chasers” can spend $5,000 per visit but that’s only the “professionals” who might travel half-way around the world for such an event.
“Being one of the most accessible eclipses in history will result in the percentage of eclipse chasers being very low compared to ‘first timers’ or your average Joe,” Wilcox told me. “Calculations on average spending for these folks would not have historical data to be based on. The overall economic impact has been questioned quite a bit over the last month and we are looking at some of the typical ways tourism authorities calculate these numbers regularly, taking into account a number of differences with this scenario.”
On the other hand, folks in Casper hope the city’s charm will make people stay for far longer than two minutes. As one resident pointed out, every new business – or new relocation — begins with a first visit.
Perhaps the darkness of this summer’s celestial event might provide you with a flash of insight. I’ve long advocated that people who live in big coastal cities with their big housing price-tags should give small-er town American a second look. The eclipse could be your chance. Lord knows, smaller cities deserve it.