Planning for the 2024 total solar eclipse: Community collaboration and involvement a priority

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

A special meeting was held on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at the Hardy Civic Center at 12 noon focusing on the upcoming 2024 total solar eclipse. Hazelle Whited with the Create Bridges Podcast, the University of Arkansas and the Community of Professional and Economic Development Unit, opened the meeting by recognizing Mayor Jonas Anderson of Cave City and Mayor Russell Truitt of Highland. Also attending were Cherokee Village Councilman Rob Smith and Highland School Superintendent Jeremy Lewis, along with many other active members of the Sharp County community.

The speaker for the meeting was a special consultant, Brook Kaufman, from Casper, Wy. and the director of Visit Casper. Kaufman was instrumental in heading the Eclipse Festival organizing committee during the 2017 full solar eclipse in which Casper was in the path of totality, as is Sharp County, and especially Hardy, for the 2024 solar eclipse, which will cover about a 120-mile wide path across Arkansas.

Kaufman began with the understanding that not everyone takes an eclipse, even a total eclipse, seriously, but she added, “People are going to come to your community whether you do something or not.”

Both Kaufman and Whited emphasized that while the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 seems like a long way off, it is only 30 months away. That is not much time for planning and preparing in order to make the best of the eclipse and to capitalize on the amount of tourism the event is likely to bring in. Brook Kaufman was hired to come in and share the experiences, both good and bad, they endured during the 2017 eclipse in Wyoming.

After asking the question of how long the maximum totality will be of the 2024 eclipse, Kaufman revealed it will last all of four minutes and 28 seconds, and that’s right on the center line of the eclipse path of totality. If you are off to one side of the path, the viewing of the eclipse in its totality will be shorter. “That’s one of the reasons Casper was so popular is because we were dead on the center line…Our [viewing duration] was one minute and 42 seconds, and people traveled from all over the globe to come to our community [for that brief time to view the eclipse].” Hardy is right on the center line for the 2024 eclipse.

Casper first learned of the 2017 eclipse when someone came into Casper in 2012, five years before the eclipse, and booked an entire hotel for the 2017 event. The hotel latched onto the offer and sold it at the going rate of $99 a night. “As it got closer to the eclipse,” said Kaufman, “they were very upset they had sold those rooms for $99 a night.”

Based on altitude and predicted climate, Russellville, Ark. is in the top 20 sites for viewing. “It’s really going to come down to what the weather is going to do that day. So all the preparation in the world, they’ll still come, but if somebody else has a higher chance of clear skies, or that morning, an hour north is going to have a higher chance of clear skies, they’re going to be on the move,” Kaufman forewarned.

The 2017 eclipse was the first total solar eclipse since 1979, so they are relatively rare events. Sharp County has an advantage in that we can benefit from the experiences of those behind the planning and preparing for the 2017 eclipse.

The first thing that needs to be done is to hire someone, preferably from outside the community, who will come in to be the head organizer and stay for the duration, from beginning planning stages through to the end, according to Kaufman. To hire someone that committed will take some money. “These things aren’t free, they don’t just happen,” said Kaufman. They set up a separate 501(C)3 non-profit organization to lead the planning of an eclipse festival. This allowed them to hire a staff member, provided a vehicle to raise money and distanced other organizations involved a step away from liability risk.

They hired the staff organizer 16 months prior to the event, and signed her on an 18-month contract to ensure she would stay 60 days after the event was over, providing her with an added bonus at the end. Kaufman regrets they had not already lined up another job for her to stay on in the Casper community as she had been a great attribute. As it was, she left as soon as her contract was up. “If you hire someone and they move or they’re really going to make a commitment to you, make a commitment to them,” offered Kaufman.

As far as developing the festival, they invited members of the community to come together with their own ideas and contributions. This resulted in the development of multiple events, each of which was the responsibility of an independent organizer from the community to pay for the talent, reserve the venues and assume the liability, among other things such as providing enough port-a-potties. These independent organizers will sell the tickets, so they pay the money and make the money. It was a great way to bring the community together because everyone was walking in the same direction toward the same particular goal. The motivation behind it all was the large number of tourists coming into town.

Another factor they had not anticipated in Casper was the traffic. “What normally takes four hours to get from Casper to Denver, took 9, 10 to 11 hours because everyone left our community at the same time,” Kaufman explained. There was a mass exodus out of Wyoming. People were stranded along the highway for hours with no water or food. Kaufman has already checked with ARDOT and other highway officials in Arkansas to make sure they are prepared for the event. There will be a plan in place to make movement of traffic a little easier for the 2024 eclipse than what happened in 2017 in Wyoming.

Another concern is local movement of traffic, for instance, picking up kids from school on that Monday, April 8. The highways will be blocked with traffic that afternoon. So preparing and possibly closing the schools early or for the entire day may be a consideration.

In addition, it is important to educate the local businesses and general public about the eclipse itself and what to expect as far as traffic, business activity and the number of people that will be out in the streets. Kaufman described their “eclipse blitz teams,” who were groups of people who walked into each and every business to explain what to expect, beginning 18 months prior to the event, advising people of the anticipated number of visitors who will be infiltrating the community and how long they will stay. Different businesses will have different concerns. Banks may need to make sure ATMs are filled with plenty of money, and possibly will have to handle foreign currency exchange. Motels may need to be prepared for multiple people per room, and know the demands on items such as toilet paper. Parking may also be a problem. Kaufman added, “You won’t have to know all the answers. You just have to bring people together so they can help each other find the answers.”

The total expenditures the city of Caspar had to spend came to $250,000. The first $190,000 was raised in partnerships between the city, economic development, tourism board and some businesses. They had all the expenses necessary in the bank before they ever hired a director, including health insurance, housing, cell phone, mileage, etc.

One unexpected source of revenue was through event affiliations, such as campgrounds, events and attractions, from which they raised $25,000. Kaufman recommended visiting their website: visitcasper.com/eclipse to get event affiliation information along with everything Casper did to prepare for the eclipse.

One source they did not receive revenue from was sponsorships. There was no need to advertise because people were coming to the event anyway. Merchandise sold so well, they were sold out of merchandise by the second day. This was one area they failed in which otherwise could have brought in a lot more revenue.

In total, Kaufman explained, “Our county has 80,000 people, our festival was five days, and it was $7.5 million [that we generated], half a million dollars in sales tax collections with 21,000 [visitors]. It was a great boost for us.”

Kaufman warned there will be an onslaught of people calling, e-mailing and asking questions over social media. As the event gets closer, there may be a need for people who are designated to address these questions. She also brought up the need to prepare for infrastructure overload, not just with streets, but also water and sewer systems, public safety and emergency rooms. Any local airports should also be prepared for people flying in just to observe the eclipse.

Councilman Smith asked if Kaufman had any ideas for keeping people a little longer after the eclipse to avoid traffic pile-ups on the highways. She suggested having a campaign to “Just Stay the Night,” which would make a big difference in the traffic flow.

Kaufman did say Sharp County has the advantage of starting early enough to prepare a fantastic festival. Along with their website visitcasper.com/eclipse, she suggested greatamericaneclipse.com as a good source of information. Whited is also available to answer questions and can be reached at 501-743-2209.

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