I don’t think I’ve seen as much pre-planning going on around here since then-President Bill Clinton visited Arkansas State University in 1995. And the Clinton visit happened according to a timetable.
Perhaps the similarity ends there.
Members of the local media submitted their names and dates of birth to the Secret Service well in advance of the Clinton show rolling into town. We were instructed where to park, where to have our cameras and equipment bags screened what would happen when and where we would stand, We also were assigned places to photograph the president during his remarks and afterward as he shot some hoops with Arthur Agee of “Hoop Dreams” fame and who played briefly for A-State’s basketball team.
About five months from now, on April 8, 2024, a total eclipse of the sun will occur. And as luck would have it, Arkansas is in the “path of totality” for what is being called the Great American Eclipse.
This is a solar eclipse, the phenomenon in which the moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun for up to about 3 hours, from beginning to end, as viewed from a given location.
I suppose there is a similarity that didn’t occur to me at first between the Clinton visit and the Great American Eclipse we will envision in a few short months. The eclipse will build slowly to a crescendo as it travels across the landscape toward a total blockage of the sun by the moon and then fade for us.
That’s somewhat like the sitting leader of the free world coming to your town in that the visit lasts hours, even though there are only a few minutes of the most exciting part of the event. Though there was a big crowd for the presidential event and we had a number of visitors to Jonesboro, that event likely won’t draw near the onlookers as will the moon when it passes between the sun and Earth.
Cari White, who chairs the Jonesboro Eclipse Committee, said we may expect as many as 70,000 visitors on the weekend before and the day of the eclipse. The committee is meeting regularly to be certain that details of accommodating that many visitors at once have been considered.
Jonesboro is the largest city in the region and even though the period of totality will last just a couple of minutes, the 4-minute area is a fairly short distance from Jonesboro. Most visitors from out of town will need places to stay, and White said some hotels are already requiring three-night minimum stays for that weekend.
The big challenge with 70,000 visitors in a town of about the same population is of course, traffic congestion. April 8 falls on a Monday, so people who have to go to their job, students who have to go to school and those who come to Jonesboro for medical, legal or banking services will likely still need to keep those appointments. The Jonesboro Eclipse Committee has met with law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders and those conversations continue, White said.
Restaurants have been advised to make sure they have extra provisions on hand and otherwise be prepared to accommodate their regular customers plus thousands of others all weekend long.
Most of the folks who come from outside this area will need places to set up their viewing stations, whether they are professionals or observers seeking places to stand and (wearing protective eyewear) peer skyward. The Jonesboro committee has already acquired 70,000 pairs of the special protective glasses needed to prevent eye damage and is giving them away, White said.
The Jonesboro Department of Parks and Recreation will make available all its facilities, White noted, and Arkansas State University will be involved, though she didn’t yet have specifics. National and state parks in Arkansas also are planning for crowds as are campgrounds in the state, officials said.
Other communities in the area — for example, Paragould, Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge — are planning for large influxes of visitors.
All the communities in the totality area have a chance to showcase what their communities offer visitors. What they also have in April is how to evaluate how well they’ve planned and learn what they did very well and what they need to improve on in the event of a planned or unplanned event that sends thousands of extra people and their vehicles to their cities.
If accommodating an extra-large crowd for one weekend is a challenge in some ways, it also presents enormous opportunities for energetic and creative retail sales.
If I were a convenience store operator or other retailer, I think I’d order several thousand pairs of eclipse glasses. They’re inexpensive and the temples provide a nice flat surface for imprinting my business’s logo and contact info.
I’d think up some sort of contests or giveaways with the eclipse theme. The possibilities are endless. Since this will be the last total solar eclipse over the United States for 21 years, naturally, it could be a one-time chance to see one of nature’s more interesting phenomena while making the cash register ring.
Miss this one, and you’re out of luck. We’d better make hay while the sun doesn’t shine.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.