By John Balch
Don’t think they won’t come.
That was some of the important advice from a Wyoming tourism official who has been making rounds in Arkansas trying to get people ready for what’s being billed as “The Great American Eclipse.”
On April 8, 2024, The Natural State will be one of a few states directly in the eclipse’s “path of totality” – the shadow zone of an eclipse that makes the entire spectacle visible. The path of totality is about 120 miles wide and will darken the day for more than four minutes. Outside the path, the eclipse will be only partially visible.
Brook Kaufman of Visit Casper Wyoming was in Nashville last week to share the “dos and don’ts” of hosting what turned out to be about 500,000 eclipse chasers in 2017 for a full week of activities. The event doubled the population of Casper and tested not only the city’s tourism ability but the overall infrastructure of the area.
The 2024 total solar eclipse is the only one in the 21st century with a path of totality in Mexico and parts of North America.
“It’s going to be big deal,” Kaufman said to a small crowd in Nashville last Thursday morning.
Kaufman said Wyoming capitalized on the eclipse in 2017, which lasted only 1.42 seconds in the direct path. Arkansas has 30 months to prepare for what could be thousands to millions of visitors that will need a place to view the event, stay, eat, use the restroom, gas up, etc.
“They’re coming,” Kaufman said. “So, it’s time to get organized.”
Kaufman said rural Arkansas should be prepared to ask and answer the question, “What if 250,000 people show up?”
Word is that hotels in Little Rock and Hot Springs are already sold
out for that week in April when the eclipse comes around.
Kaufman said eclipse chasers in Wyoming spent an average of $931 and there is certainly money to be made from the event.
One thing Kaufman said her city did not expect was the mass exodus when the eclipse cleared and half-million got in their vehicles and headed out of town. The situation caused one of the largest traffic jams in Wyoming history and even the governor had to be picked up by a helicopter so he could get back to work. The eclipse will take place on a school day and with such a large volume of traffic expected Kaufman said schools should question whether to hold class that day.
There will be plenty of “fear and unknowns” involved in the planning with the weather forecast topping that list. Kaufman said a NASA weather report shows there will be an 80 percent chance of clear skies on April 8, 2024.
Sevier County is already getting ahead of the game after finding out that the rural town of Gilliam, located near the Polk-Sevier county line, will be the best spot (the center line) in Arkansas to view the eclipse. A community website has been created (eclipse2024.org) and Create Bridges is helping spread the work and offer advise for preparation.
Murfreesboro City Council members Jack Bonds and Jane Fugitt attended Kaufman’s presentation in Little Rock last week. Bonds said that it was told in that presentation that NASA will be designing and selling the special glassed need to safely view the eclipse. The cost per pair will somewhere about 13 cents each.
Bonds said Monday, “Her suggestion was the state of Arkansas buy a million pairs of the glasses.”
Eclipse chasers are already scoping out the places they want to be in 2024 and Kaufman said in Wyoming that open spaces were rented from ranchers and some landowners offered their land for temporary campsites.
Kaufman added that – believe it or not – that some people will not know what is happening on April 8, 2024 and will be surprised when the day turns into night for more than four minutes and the state’s two-lone roads are clogged in every direction. She said now is the time to start educating the public, involving the communities and businesses and getting county and city officials on the same page about what could potently happened that week.
“This will be a very unique opportunity for the state of Arkansas,” Kaufman said.