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Carbondale looks back on, and ahead to, eclipse fever

  • Thousands filled Saluki Stadium the afternoon of Aug. 21, 2017, for a look the total solar eclipse that crossed the nation. The point of the eclipse's longest duration was located just south of Carbondale, garnering national attention for the city and university.

    Thousands filled Saluki Stadium the afternoon of Aug. 21, 2017, for a look the total solar eclipse that crossed the nation. The point of the eclipse's longest duration was located just south of Carbondale, garnering national attention for the city and university.
    Times file photo

  • A view at the very end of totality Aug. 21, 2017.

    A view at the very end of totality Aug. 21, 2017.
    Times file photo

 
By Geoff Ritter
gritter@carbondaletimes.com
updated: 8/17/2018 11:24 AM

One year later, some still don't know quite what to make of Carbondale's big moment in -- or, rather, out of -- the sun.

Cinnamon Wheeles-Smith, executive director of Carbondale Tourism, spent almost the entire weekend preceding the Aug. 21, 2017, total solar eclipse downtown at the First Mid-Illinois parking lot, helping to coordinate efforts at the eclipse marketplace and waiting for the crowds sure to descend on Carbondale, epicenter of the first such eclipse to touch the continental U.S. in nearly four decades. (Of course, if you wanted to see the true epicenter, you had to visit the orange line painted across the highway in Makanda.)

And sure, people came, but not quite in the way many expected.

"That weekend is still somewhat baffling to me. I'm not sure what we accomplished," Wheeles-Smith said. "If it was to show off Carbondale and the area, we succeeded. If it was to make a huge economic impact, I'm not sure we did that."

No doubt, "Eclipse Week" brought unprecedented activity and frenzy to town. It also brought national and international media exposure, said Bob Baer, the SIU Department of Physics specialist who helped stoke public engagement in the months leading up to the big event.

NASA came to town, as did the national media. Headlines about SIU and Carbondale spread far and wide.

The economic numbers are more puzzling. While the city collected far more in hotel/motel tax money in August 2017 compared with the previous August, sales tax revenue actually went down during the month of the eclipse compared with the previous year.

Also, the city spent additional money to promote the event and provide additional public safety.

This isn't simply to rehash the past. By a stroke of sheer astronomical coincidence, the next solar eclipse to touch the United States, in April 2024, will carve a path nearly perpendicular to the one of 2017, with the intersection of the two lines stunningly located just south of Carbondale.

Thus, Carbondale will have yet another shot at hosting a world-class eclipse party -- and this second bout of momentary twilight will both last longer and be viewable from across a wider swath of southern Illinois.

City Manager Gary Williams said stakeholders first met about two weeks after the 2017 eclipse to go over what went well, and what could have been better, with their eyes firmly fixed on 2024. Williams said that while hotels were booked to capacity during eclipse weekend 2017, and several popular Carbondale restaurants reported having their best weekends on record, the overall economic impact wasn't as large as some anticipated.

It's fair to say those expectations were sky-high, literally and figuratively.

Perhaps the most common criticism in the aftermath was what Wheeles-Smith called "the fear of the apocalypse," which led many locals to buy gas, stock up on bread and milk, and generally avoid hubs of activity, eclipse-related or otherwise, after repeated warnings about potential crowd sizes. Everyone knows there were plenty of people -- an estimated 30,000 people on the SIU campus for the day, and a generally agreed upon, yet still mushy figure of 50,000 visitors for the city as a whole -- but they didn't quite congregate in the ways that planners expected.

"They were here," Wheeles-Smith said. "They were at people's houses, in front of Best Buy, downtown ... people were everywhere."

Williams said the city is mindful of this concern in hindsight, but it faced a "double-edged sword" when planning for an event without any clear precedent.

"We had no way of knowing how many people would show up," Williams said. "We had absolutely no way to gauge it, so we had to kind of overplan in some areas."

Williams said the experience will help the city and other organizers lay more informed plans for the 2024 eclipse, a rare double-opportunity for any community of any size. Also, he said, continuing research is showing that the 2017 eclipse made Americans far more aware of what an eclipse is and the profound impact many report experiencing, which will make them more savvy about planning to see the one just over five years from now. Williams said the city will be ready early with a web presence and other vital information geared toward planning a trip to Carbondale.

And while last year's brush with totality was short -- just over two minutes, in fact, beginning locally around 1:21 p.m. -- its impact is still being felt.

Planning for the eclipse crowds led the city to finally embark on a series of long-desired improvements to South Illinois Avenue, and Williams said it's doubtful that initial streetscape project would have been realized as soon as it was without the eclipse to help speed things along.

In addition, the notion of larger downtown concerts, as well as open carry of alcohol during such events, is something the city now is deliberately trying to replicate for other downtown activities.

The impact is even greater on the minds of the many who witnessed the rare astronomical event.

Baer said that during the large observation event held at Saluki Stadium, when a cloud ominously rolled across the sky, he witnessed things he never thought he'd see.

"It added this really cool drama to it where the crowd was screaming for it to go away," Baer recalled.

The troublesome cloud ultimately moved away in just enough time for the crowd to witness the final moments of totality. "It was like a football game, except everyone was cheering for it to go away."

When totality occurred, Williams was near the Student Center, where the cloud wasn't nearly so irksome. He said that after all the hype, the event met and exceeded expectations.

"I don't think you truly get it until you see it," Williams said. "I can't wait for the next one."