Carbondale Plans to Make Hay While Sun Doesn't Shine

By Quint Forgey Features Dow Jones Newswires

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- This roughly 25,000-person college town in southern Illinois will become shrouded in total darkness for as long as two minutes and 40 seconds during Monday's solar eclipse, longer than almost any other location in the country.

Continue Reading Below

But for Carbondale city administrators who have been preparing for the phenomenon since last summer, the eclipse is as much an opportunity to boost the city's faltering university-based economy as it is a chance to view a cosmic light show.

"It's a massive opportunity," City Manager Gary Williams said. "It's an unbelievable economic potential for our businesses."

Carbondale's population is expected to double Monday as astronomers, NASA scientists, curiosity-seekers, students of all ages and international media trek here for an event that could generate $8 million in local economic activity, according to city estimates.

The town's moment in the blocked-out sun couldn't come at a better time.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the city's largest employer, has seen funding delays in recent years as a result of a record-breaking state budget stalemate in Springfield.

Continue Reading Below

Carbondale normally relies on each student to generate $10,000 annually in local economic activity, said Mayor John "Mike" Henry, but dwindling student enrollment has cost the city about $50 million a year. Drugs and crime in pockets of the community have stretched local police and social services.

When Mr. Henry was first notified of Carbondale's geographic significance for the eclipse by SIU faculty more than two years ago, he became determined to make hay while the sun was still shining.

"Right at the beginning we said, 'We cannot fail at this,'" Mr. Henry said. "We're going to overplan. We're going to overspend. We're going to do everything possible so that every single person has the best experience that they can have."

Mr. Henry expedited the first phase of an expansive downtown-revitalization effort, spending about $1.75 million to tear up sidewalks, unify the streetscape, update public parking and improve street lighting.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday marked the beautification project's completion, just three days before the solar deadline.

"It was extremely important," Mr. Henry said. "We wanted to put our best foot forward, and that's what that did for us."

The new look of the downtown area, coupled with whirring commercial activity in the days leading up to the eclipse, have left many locals feeling rather sunny.

"The transformation they've finished in just the past week has been incredible," said Kyle Harfst, executive director of economic development at SIU.

Mr. Harfst was part of a planning committee that hosted seminars for local businesses as early as September of last year to help prepare retailers for the enormous influx of visitors to Carbondale this weekend.

He advised restaurants to limit extensive menus to roughly a dozen items and discouraged vendors from relying exclusively on niche products like eclipse T-shirts that would lose value after the weekend.

"Let's take advantage of this naturally occurring phenomenon and capitalize on it," Mr. Harfst said. "Economically, it's been a pretty good investment for the city, the university and the community."

George Sheffer, who has owned the Murdale True Value hardware store in Carbondale for 40 years, attended one of the seminars, where he was warned that his business may not profit as much as convenience stores or other shops this weekend.

But he has done well selling bottled water, caution tape, entrance and exit signs for restaurants, and propane for eclipse barbecues. He has also rented several tents to the city government for use during festivals downtown and has sold about 5,000 pairs of protective eclipse glasses.

"For a local, it's been a very exciting time," he said. "You have so many people coming together to give a good impression."

Mr. Sheffer is already excited for the economic potential of another eclipse set to pass over the city in April 2024, prompting Carbondale to bill itself as the "Eclipse Crossroads of America." Planning for that event begins next week with a meeting where city officials will debrief and reflect on the events of this weekend.

"We're going to do it while it's fresh on everybody's mind," Mr. Henry said. "We'll be more ready than ever for the next one."

Write to Quint Forgey at quint.forgey@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 20, 2017 18:22 ET (22:22 GMT)