Howell County News/ Amanda Mendezcourtesy of Explore West Plains

Four minutes of darkness

Leaders talk preparedness for next spring’s total eclipse
How would it affect your life if twenty thousand tourists came to town? This is the question community leaders across the Ozarks gathered to consider last week. 

On Thursday, OzSBI presented EPIC: An Ozarks Eclipse Experience to help community and business leaders prepare for the total eclipse of the sun that will take place on April 8, 2024. The program was a full day of speakers with presentations about the social, economic, and public safety impact an eclipse can have on a rural area.

The event’s keynote speaker was Brook Kaufman, who is the current President and CEO of Visit Rapid City, SD. In 2017, however, she was the director of a festival in Casper, WY, celebrating that year’s total eclipse. Kaufman’s first presentation titled, ‘Preparing your Community for an Eclipse: 13 All-Too-Real Truths,’ stressed the inevitability of tourism surrounding total eclipses. 

“If you think not one person is going to travel for this, you’re wrong,” Kaufman said.

About half of the Ozarks is in the path of totality. West Plains is near the center of the eclipse path, presumably making it a desirable destination for eclipse-chasers. The City of West Plains has been planning a multi-day festival to accommodate tourists. Hotel owners present at the seminar reported their facilities are already booked to about twenty percent capacity twelve months before the celestial event.

Regardless of whether the eclipse proves to be a major tourism boost for the region, Kaufman’s main point was that preparation will serve our communities best. In Casper in 2017, twenty-one thousand tourists arrived to watch the total solar eclipse, increasing the city’s population by about 50%. The surrounding area faced significant transportation challenges when all those tourists tried to leave on the same day, Kaufman said. The major interstate was essentially shut down with nine-and-ten-hour traffic jams. 

Otherwise, the impact in the city was overall positive. Kaufman reported no significant increases in crime, no infrastructure failings, and no significant injuries or deaths. Instead, the area saw a half-million-dollar bump in tax revenues from a five-day event, and traveling parties showed up ready to spend. In Casper, they spent about $931 each. 

“They are planning now where to go. The great unknown is how many people will come,” Kaufman said. "You’re not late. But don’t wait.”

In addition to the business community and locals, Kaufman suggested that law enforcement and civic leaders begin preparing now for the impact of a major tourism event. She even suggested closing the schools on that day due to potential travel complications. 

West Plains Tourism has a planning committee that will steer the city through the event, which will include a festival called Party in the Path. They will be educating business owners by going door-to-door with information and launching an informational app. 

The path of totality is, however, 120 miles wide and will affect a wide area. Represented at the seminar were civic leaders from Poplar Bluff, Pacific, Piedmont, Cape Girardeau, Doniphan, Van Buren, Mansfield, Mammoth Springs, Eminence, Koshkonong, Caulfield, Alton, Willow Springs, West Plains, and Mountain View. 

All this preparation is meant to manage the potential chaos a four-minute total eclipse may cause if our population suddenly doubles in size. This is the last time a total eclipse will be visible in the Ozarks until 2178. 

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