Impending eclipse a bright spot for Carbondale

Impending eclipse a bright spot for Carbondale

CARBONDALE — An incredibly rare total eclipse will black out the skies over Campus Lake later this summer, while up to an estimated 50,000 visitors watch, many in Saluki Stadium.

And Southern Illinois University students will get the day off, delaying the beginning of the school year.

The countdown is on — just 57 more days — to a cosmic event that should also be a profitable one. If the weather gods bless this college town on Aug. 21, the 50,000 figure is nearly double the population of Carbondale, at 25,902.

Every city worker will be on hand.

Several of the area motels report no vacancies months in advance, and even the Schneider Hall dormitory is available to astronomy tourists from all over the world.

Saluki Plaza's Attitude Design Custom T-shirt store is two minutes from the stadium. Roxanne Conley has been the owner for five years.

"This is potentially the biggest event in Carbondale over those five years. Definitely bigger than a football weekend. I can only assume that this will be a nice financial bump for a lot of us," she said.

Among the items already created at her business and in some cases, already sold: banners, T-shirts, mugs, water bottles, patches and magnets. You can see pole banners she designed on the streets that the city has put up.

"We've done a lot of custom stuff for individuals and businesses like insurance companies," she said.

The company has even made a safety item: special viewing glasses, and you can pay to get your logo on them.

For the first total solar eclipse over the U.S. since 1979, the point of greatest duration on Aug. 21 is in Southern Illinois, and both the University of Illinois and Parkland College are hosting events in nearby towns.

Carbondale Tourism's Cinnamon Wheeles-Smith said the town will have more tourists than room at the inn.

"We have been hard-pressed to place a dollar figure for the impact this event is going to have on our economy just yet," she said.

"Although the majority of our commercial lodging is full, we have several untraditional opportunities that will help us to hold more visitors: the SIU Rec Center camp-in, Schneider Hall dormitory, as well as nearby campsites."

The 50,000 visitors is "an estimate given to us by NASA, but it's difficult to pinpoint that number as we can only lodge a small percent here in Carbondale," she said.

World's watching

Carbondale Chief of Police Jeff Grubbs said it could be a massive event, far eclipsing Unofficial Halloween when it was a city-sanctioned function.

"That topped out at 20,000-plus," he said, with The Strip of bars packed during several years of the infamous celebration.

Carbondale Police Sgt. Amber Ronketto said the city has been in planning for the event "for over a year" and is throwing everything at it.

"We're anticipating every city employee will be working the weekend before and the actual day Monday for an event this big," she said.

How big? Police can't be sure yet.

Ronketto said that planning has had to be flexible, considering the eclipse attendance is highly dependent on weather.

"We've heard 50,000 people, 20,000 people. It depends on if it's overcast or raining here — then they'll go someplace else," she said.

Rae Goldsmith, SIU's chief marketing and communications officer, said the university began receiving inquiries from other countries more than two years ago.

There are 10,000 seats available now at Saluki Stadium.

"We are also expecting national and international media, as well," Goldsmith said.

The stadium public viewing will be hosted by Mat Kaplan of Planetary Radio, which airs on 150 stations and online.

Stadium visitors will be able to see live coverage of the eclipse across America through the eyes of NASA, anchored by NASA Edge, Goldsmith said. School groups are invited, as well.

Chicago's Adler Planetarium is another partner.

At the SIU arena, there will be a Crossroads Astronomy and Technology Expo.

"North of the arena, we'll have an eclipse-themed art and craft fair. We'll even have our own Eclipse Comic Con," Goldsmith said.

Dorm opens doors

It's not just revenue that matters for SIU.

"Of course, as a university, we view this is an educational opportunity as well. We have been and will continue to host workshops and other educational events leading up to the eclipse," Goldsmith said.

Wheeles-Smith said among the businesses in town that are selling eclipse merchandise are 710 Bookstore, University Bookstore, Carbondale Tourism, Pagliai's Pizza and Murdale True Value, just to name a few.

She said the impact will benefit many of the towns in the area.

"In a typical scenario for an event drawing a couple of thousand visitors to Carbondale such as SIU's Family Weekend, homecoming and graduation, we rely heavily on neighboring towns to provide overnight accommodations to our guests, who then make the short 10-15-minute drive to Carbondale for the activities," she said.

The unusual accommodation in an SIU residence hall is about 200 suites, with a maximum of eight people permitted per two-bedroom suite, said Rebecca Dycus, housing's publicity and promotions specialist.

The Eclipse Housing package is for three nights and the cost is $800 for the entire suite, plus tax.

Guests may also purchase a dining package for $90 per person, plus tax. This includes unlimited access to Trueblood Dining Hall during their stay, she said.

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