When the lights go down on small-town America next week, Eclipse chasers are guaranteed to see a heck of a show. Not much else is guaranteed, however.
I explained the tricky problems facing towns in the “zone of totality” for CNBC.com this week. You can read that story here. Below is a few additional details about eclipse economics.
But first, please know this: Your fear of missing out could reach an all-time high this weekend, as you social media timeline is overrun by people talking about seeing the eclipse. Know that millions of others will feel the same way. And you all might end up sitting on a highway together if you don’t plan very carefully.
While this Super Bowl of celestial events is predictable down to the second, Eclipse economics are anything but. Hundreds of cities in the path of darkness are racing to prepare for what could be a once-in-a-generation boost to the local economy. Or, if a few clouds drift the wrong way, it could be a dud, and a costly one at that. Planners admit they are basically in the dark about how much the Eclipse might help or hurt.
While much of the continental United States will enjoy at least partial darkness on Eclipse day, only a 70-mile-wide strip will be in the critical “Zone of Totality.” It stretches from coast-to-coast, beginning in Lincoln City, Ore., and ending near Charleston, S.C. All along the way, small cities and towns are trying to maximize the tourism dollars that might turn a late August weekend into one for the ages; or could turn their peaceful streets into one giant, expensive garbage dump.
In Casper, Wyoming, construction workers are racing to complete a new town square that will be the centerpiece of a week-long festival. In Hopkinsville, Ky. – which city planners have dubbed “Eclipseville” — they have rebuilt sidewalks and repainted the town clock. In Lincoln City, Ore., they are working to make sure people come early and stay late. Meanwhile, in Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri astronomy professor Angela Speck warns that officials are trying to figure out how to race the state’s collection of portable toilets into town from the state fairgrounds 70 miles away — the fair ends the night before the eclipse.
A remarkable 12 million Americans already live in the zone of totality, where the Moon will completely block the sun for a little more than two minutes. Critically, many more can easily commute to an Eclipse-friendly locale. Some 88 million Americans live within 200 miles of the zone, according to GreatAmericanEclipse.com, and virtually all of the lower 48 is within a long day’s drive.
They’re all going to need to eat, and perhaps sleep somewhere, not to mention they’ll need to buy Eclipse-ready glasses and T-shirts.
They’ll only spend real money if they have a place to sleep however, and in many small towns, the hotels have been full for months.
Speck, who is also co-chair of an American Astronomical Society task force on eclipse preparedness, says some towns have tried to address this by temporarily suspending hotel regulations, essentially allowing anyone to rent their home to Eclipse watchers.
But plenty of other capricious factors – like rain that sends visitors scurrying to another part of the state — could turn Eclipse day into a dud. That could really hurt small towns that are already spending extra money on police, emergency services, cleanup crews, and all those portable toilets. That would be a bummer in Columbia, where Eclipse glass sales will help fund the university’s observatory, she said.
The only thing worse than an eclipse dud, however, would be an eclipse party that exceeds all expectations.
“I’m trying to help communities understand the potential here … We fully expect to double population in the path. Some towns are going to be really struggling with these numbers,” Speck said. She equates the potential to a large storm or other natural disaster. There might be gas shortages. Supermarkets will run out of food. More crucially, emergency services could be overrun. If it’s hot out, towns might not have enough cooling stations.
The age of social media adds a degree of unpredictability too, she said. By the end of next week, you social media timelines will be full of eclipse posts; it’ll be almost impossible *not* to know what’s happening. That is certain to increase interest, Speck said. Fear of Missing Out could turn a lot of people into last-minute chasers.
The irony of this decidedly predictable event is that forecasters and economists concede they have no idea what to expect on Eclipse day.
“A lot of this is planning for the unknown,” said Eric Johnson, public relations for Lincoln City, Ore., the Pacific coast beach town where the eclipse will first hit U.S. shores.