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It’s time to roll up those sleeves and get ready for a lot of work, Baxter County.
The Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce has put out a call for all cities, organizations and businesses in town to help prepare for the influx of visitors during the 2024 solar eclipse.
To help get the preparations started, the Chamber held an open meeting Wednesday afternoon with community leaders from every region of the county at Arkansas State University – Mountain Home to coordinate preparations for the major tourism event, and to come up with ideas of how to maximize the benefits Baxter County will receive from the influx of money and eclipse tourists to the area.
A large portion of Arkansas, including Baxter County, will be in the path of a full solar eclipse, or full totality, on April 8, 2024, and is expected to be under darkness for 3 minutes and 11 seconds, drawing up to as many as 7.4 million people to the State.
“We are predicting, because of the water and some of the amenities that we have up here, if we were to guess we would also expect anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 people. So, we expect to double our population on April 18th,” said Dani Pugsley, Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce President.
The upcoming solar eclipse in 2024 is the second time in recent memory that the United States has been in the path of a solar eclipse. In 2017, millions of people from all over the world flocked to various Southern States, including portions of Arkansas, for their shot at seeing a full solar eclipse. Mountain Home and Baxter County were only able to see a partial eclipse at the time.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) states that, “a total solar eclipse is not noticeable until the Sun is more than 90 percent covered by the Moon. At 99 percent coverage, daytime lighting resembles local twilight.”
The agency is expecting Mountain Home to have minimal cloud coverage during that time, opening up opportunities for Baxter County residents to cash in on the expected influx of tourists.
“They’re coming. We can do nothing, but they’re still going to come,” Pugsley said.
To prepare for the influx, Pugsley and the Chamber have proposed that each region and city of the county work together, by pooling their resources, to help create the best experience possible for residents and tourists. The goal, Pugsley said, is to attempt to control some of the chaos of the event, instead of having each location doing something on their own.
It should be noted that the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce is not wanting to make the eclipse about Mountain Home, but rather the whole county. If county leaders agree to work together, the big event will be called the ‘Ozark Mountain Eclipse’.
“One of the main reasons why the Chamber decided to spearhead this is because we have paid staff,” Pugsley said. “Most of our Chambers that are around us are all volunteers, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask volunteers to take on something of this magnitude.”
To start with planning, Pugsley has asked community members to volunteer for a slew of proposed boards that will oversee certain aspects of the eclipse.
Those boards cover topics like safety, finance, marketing, media relations, emergency response, health, government liaisons, event management, live productions and transportation.
If everything runs smoothly, Baxter County can expect to see an influx of millions of dollars to the local economy over the course of the event.
That said, major challenges do lie ahead. First responders and law enforcement can quickly be overrun and overworked in major events like these. Transportation and access to roads can also become an issue.
Several of the county’s first responders that attended the meeting, agreed that there could be issues, but many, including Gassville Fire Chief Michael Glotzl said the eclipse offered an opportunity for the county to stand up a temporary Emergency Operation Center and practice coordination with each department in the county.
During the 2017 eclipse, several major U.S. Highways were completely gridlocked with cars as people from all over the country attempted to reach their viewing destination. Many drivers were forced to park their vehicles in the road and watch from wherever they were forced to stop.
That road situation could be made even worse with the lack of a major highway running through Northern Arkansas and Baxter County.
The Chamber said it was also looking at travel options for Baxter County Airport, including a special event where people fly in, watch the eclipse at the airport, and then depart within the same day.
Another struggle that the county will have to contend with is lodging. Pugsley said that all of the resorts, hotels, camping sites and VRBO’s in the area are expected to be fully booked. Several establishments have already said that they are receiving booking requests for the solar eclipse.
During the discussion on lodging, Pugsley said that other communities close in size to Baxter County saw an influx of tourists setting up tents wherever they could, even going as far to pay people to set up in their lawns. The Chamber proposed that bookings be tied to a three day package deal, to help spread out some of the traffic delays as people leave the area after the eclipse.
Food and fuel supplies were also a high priority in Wednesday afternoon’s discussion. With a major influx of people in the area, local restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores could quickly find themselves out of supplies, placing a burden on local residents.
The game plan, if local businesses hop on board, is to have everyone put in orders for supplies as quickly as possible, to ensure that the area does not run out of the essentials during the big event.
“If there’s going to be 10-15,000 more people in Mountain Home, let’s say doubling Baxter County to some degree, then you have to double the food source,” said Rick Pierce.
The Chamber of Commerce is pulling inspiration from several other small communities that have taken advantage of eclipses.
Perryville, Missouri, set up different event stations throughout its city to help spread out the 15,000 guests that visited during the 2017 eclipse. Perryville has a population of 8,000 or so people.
Those stations included a special airport event for those flying into the city’s local airport, music events, nighttime festivals, painting sessions, a carnival and events for children.
Casper City in Wyoming also invested in the 2017 eclipse by building completely new infrastructure, with the largest being David Street Station, to host special events in its downtown area during the eclipse. David’s Station has since become a major attraction for the small community following the passing of the eclipse.
Both cities also spent resources marketing themselves online, as well as creating merchandise to sell during the event.
Pugsley said she would like for Baxter County to follow suit, and create several festivals and events throughout the county for tourists to participate in. The Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce has already developed a logo for the Ozark Mountain Eclipse and is currently in the process of creating a website for the entire county to use. Businesses were encouraged to create their own merchandise as well.
Pugsley is currently looking into securing sunglasses for the event with Dr. Rob Connor of All Creatures Veterinarian Hospital. A discussion of creating temporary jobs for members of the community on the day of the event was also had at the meeting.
Pugsley said the largest issue that the community would face in terms of setting up for the eclipse would be funding, which would largely be provided through the generosity of donors. She noted that Arkansas state leaders have no current plans to assist small communities with the financial burden of the influx of visitors for the eclipse, though that may change after the November election cycle. More meetings covering the eclipse are expected to be held in the near future.
“What is this eclipse,” said Brian Losurdo of Platinum Roadcase Productions. “Is it just enhancing the community so that the restaurants and the hospitality industry is shining and doing what they need to do, or are we doing some sort of large scale, massive production event for touring people around the country? That’s not really my expertise, it’s for the community to decide and define what this is.”