Kentucky City, Seeing Dollars, Prepares for 'Eclipse-Stock'

By Cameron McWhirter Features Dow Jones Newswires

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. -- This western Kentucky community is betting big on being "Eclipseville" this summer.

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That is the moniker and website name the city of 32,000 adopted after scientists determined it will be the point of greatest eclipse -- with the darkness lasting 2 minutes and 40 seconds -- during the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. since 1979.

Hopkinsville and the surrounding countryside hope to cast the region in a positive light when it is flooded by an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 visitors on Monday, Aug. 21.

Residents of the city and Christian County -- a swath of verdant farmland on the Tennessee border -- are setting up campsites, ordering thousands of bottles of water, calling for extra food and launching products such as "Total Eclipse Moonshine" (with the slogan "Lights out!").

But "there is no handbook in preparing for an eclipse," said Brooke Jung, the city and county eclipse coordinator, who some refer to as "the princess of darkness."

While businesses hope to capitalize on the rare event, the eclipse also is bringing anxiety to this normally serene community. Farmers worry about people damaging their fields. Amish and Mennonites are nervous about the safety of their horse-drawn buggies with all the expected traffic.

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Local and state officials, as well as representatives from the U.S. Army's nearby Fort Campbell, have been meeting regularly to plan for crowd control, safety and supplies. They have studied other major events to get ready. One cautionary tale: Woodstock, the 1969 rock festival in a rural New York town that was woefully unprepared for the enormous throng.

On their to-do list: making sure septic tanks are emptied in advance and ordering temporary cellphone towers.

The city and county have requested extra state police and National Guard to handle traffic, and asked Fort Campbell to send volunteer troops. They have requested that hospitals be fully staffed. Officials are also warning banks to stock more cash and gas stations to have more gas.

About 100 food trucks from out of the county are expected for the eclipse and officials have warned local restaurants and grocery stores to stock up and call in more staff.

Despite the preparations, some residents are worried. "I'm highly concerned," said Renee Jessup, who lives on a road directly in the path of the eclipse. "We're just country people."

Ms. Jung, the coordinator, said she initially estimated 50,000 visitors, but experts told her she should double the figure. She said the number could be even higher if the sky is clear and people from around the country flock to see what for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Solar eclipses occur when the orbit of the moon aligns exactly in front of the sun to block its light, shrouding sections of the earth in complete darkness for several minutes during what should be daytime.

In past ages, many people feared eclipses were signs of supernatural displeasure or approaching disaster. In modern times, eclipse tourism "has skyrocketed," said Alex Filippenko, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been traveling to see eclipses for years.

The August eclipse will take about 90 minutes to pass from Oregon to South Carolina. Communities across its path are preparing for crowds, from Madras, Ore., to Charleston, S.C.

While scientists pinpoint the point of greatest eclipse, they also calculate the point of the eclipse's longest duration, which can be slightly different, in part because of the irregular shape of the earth and the latitude at which the shadow falls. For this eclipse, scientists estimate the longest duration -- 0.13 seconds longer than in Hopkinsville -- will hit about 90 miles to the northwest near Makanda, Ill.

Makanda, with about 550 people, no police and no stop lights, isn't planning a major event, but it will have some portable toilets and bottled water, said Mayor Tina Shingleton. "We're just not big enough," she said.

With the Hopkinsville area embracing mantle of Eclipseville, its businesses are preparing for outsize crowds.

Peg Hays, co-owner with her husband of Casey Jones Distillery, which makes the moonshine, has ordered portable toilets, hand-washing stations, an ice truck, a hot-air balloon and off-duty police for security for the long weekend on her 73-acre property outside of town.

She estimated she has spent about $60,000 so far in hopes of a financial boon. "I want it to be eclipse-stock out here," said Ms. Hays, 62.

Other business owners are less enthused.

Johnny Hale, general manager of a Builders FirstSource Inc. store selling supplies to commercial builders, said the city created campsites in a field next to his store, then suggested he close down that day. That could cost him between $30,000 and $100,000 in lost sales, he said. City officials suggested he close the store but sell snacks and drinks instead.

"Do you have any idea how many chips I would have to sell to make up for that loss?" he said.

Many groups are organizing eclipse events. Several churches plan a three-day festival called "SolQuest" outside of the city.

The festival group has already secured a large generator, 50,000 bottles of water and booked a semitrailer full of ice. Harrell Riley, director of HR Ministries, which is organizing the event, described it as "a once-in-a-lifetime event that only God can do."

Nearby, a group of UFO enthusiasts will be holding an expanded "Little Green Men" festival in unincorporated Kelly. The group holds a festival every year to commemorate a purported alien attack on a Hopkinsville-area farmhouse on Aug. 21, 1955 -- the anniversary falls on the same date as the coming eclipse.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 03, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)