Eclipse expected to draw thousands to region April 8

The progression of the 2017 total eclipse.
Southeast Missourian file

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will stretch from Mexico, across the United States and into Canada -- dubbed as the "Great North American Eclipse." Large swaths of all three countries will be within the path of totality when the moon eclipses the sun.

This will be the second time in seven years that Southeast Missouri will be at the center of peak viewing of such an event, with the country's near maximum amount of time in total eclipse. Another eclipse passed over the country -- and directly over Southeast Missouri -- on Aug. 21, 2017.

Municipalities, businesses and hotels are gearing up in Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Perryville and throughout the area to make the most of this year's long-awaited opportunity.

'We just need to embrace it'

Brenda Newbern, executive director of VisitCape, said her tourism organization did some advertising for the solar eclipse, but not much.

"It's almost something you don't have to market for," she said. "You don't need to because NASA and everyone else are doing it for us."

Newbern has previous experience managing eclipse tourism, having been in her position during the 2017 solar eclipse.

Newbern said the 2017 eclipse resulted in $400,000 in economic impact to Cape Girardeau. The study was done by Southeast Missouri State University's Economic and Business Engagement Center.

"The spectators that we had in 2017 were estimated, like 7,000 were at Houck Stadium, 4,000 were being split between SportsPlex and River Campus. So that gave us about 11,000 people that the study showed when you look at it. I'm thinking we may get another 6,000 here when you look at all the other areas in town that we are going to have viewings available from downtown to Fort D to the airport," Newbern said.

Newbern also said from the hotels she's called, most of the hotels in the Cape Girardeau are already booked full for the eclipse and to expect the rest to be full as well.

She said this year's festivities will be improved because of lessons learned from 2017.

VisitCape is planning a single event, a watch party from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on April 8 at the Cape Girardeau SportsPlex -- the same place they hosted their 2017 watch party. New features this year include more food trucks, additional activities for children and a variety of souvenirs for sale. The organization is working with Rotary Club volunteers to handle parking and partnering with the Cape Girardeau Police Department to manage traffic.

"We are actually drawing maps and things to make sure we have the traffic flow planned," Newbern said.

Newbern said the 2017 event was so well organized that people were completely out of the SportsPlex parking lot within half an hour. Now that there's a traffic light at the nearest major intersection, she expects it will go even smoother this year.

The eclipse, Newbern said, gives people who would otherwise never know about Cape Girardeau the chance to discover it.

"We're not the program," Newbern said. "We don't have to put on anything. It's going to be in the sky. It's being brought to us by our universe. So therefore, we just need to embrace it and make something good for it and hope no clouds are in the sky that day."

It can also be a boon for local businesses to bring in customers.

"If you've got any business, it's an opportunity for you to do no more than use your front parking spaces just outside your door to look up to the sky," Newbern said. "... By this event, you can get people to your location so easily."

Several other organizations will also host events and watch parties across Cape Girardeau. These include Southeast Missouri State University, Historic Fort D, the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri and the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

'It can be hokey... and still be really special'

Three official simultaneous events are planned for the City of Jackson during the eclipse. Each location is going to have a slightly different focus, Janna Clifton, the retail and membership director for the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce, explained.

An event at Brookside Park will be geared more toward veterans, while an event at the Jackson Civic Center will be more kid-friendly.

An event at the Uptown Jackson Revitalization Organization (UJRO) office, 100 N. Missouri St., will teach visitors about the science behind eclipses.

For each location, Clifton said she's expecting large crowds.

"People track eclipses across the world, so we'll be somewhere [that] someone [visiting] has never been before just to view this eclipse. So, we want to recognize that, capitalize on that opportunity for tourism in our area," she said.

The civic center and UJRO events will feature live music and food. Clifton had previously attended a conference in San Antonio, which is also in the path of totality, to learn more about how to prepare for the eclipse.

"We've already ordered over 10,000 glasses for the event and we'll have T-shirts so it'll be cool," she said.

Clifton recommended local businesses also host their own events to join in on the fun.

"It can be hokey and silly and still be really special," she said.

Overall, Clifton added, Jackson's events to celebrate the eclipse should be larger in scale than they were in 2017.

'It's all about the eclipse'

Trish Erzfeld, director for Perry County Heritage Tourism, is planning a completely new suite of events to celebrate this year's eclipse.

"The eclipse is such a unique event, and it's supposed to be once in a lifetime, but for some reason we've been blessed to experience it twice in our lifetime and in less than seven years, so I wanted to introduce my community to things they have never experienced before," she said.

The events will be part of a three-day Solarfest. From Saturday, April 6, through Monday, April 8, the entire county will be transformed into a tourism hotspot.

The first day of Solarfest will kick off and end in the air. At 7:30 a.m., visitors can go on hot air balloon tethered rides at Missouri's National Veterans Memorial at 1172 Veterans memorial Pkwy. in Perryville. Then, at 7:30 p.m., the balloons will alight for a glow show at the memorial. Other activities include Sky Dome Planetarium shows at the Perry Park Center and live music at the Downtown Perryville Plaza.

Sunday will be geared around encouraging tourists to check out Perry County's museums and natural areas, Erzfeld said. Museums not typically open will hold special hours for visitors.

Also on Sunday, at 6 p.m., a 5K Glow Run/Walk is scheduled for downtown Perryville with a Silent Disco planned at The Warehouse Entertainment District.

"Then, on Monday, basically it's all about the eclipse," Erzfeld said.

In the Southeast Missouri region, this year's path of totality is slightly to the south of where it was seven years ago. That's part of why Erzfeld is expecting a larger turnout in Perry County.

People who want to see the eclipse from Jefferson County, for example, won't be able to in their own backyards. They'll have to head south to see it. Several viewing sites will be set up around the county. These include Perryville's City Park, where school groups will go to; The Bank of Missouri Soccer Complex for tour groups; and Perryville Regional Airport for pilots to fly to.

Other viewing locations include the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum in Altenburg, Hemman Winery in Brazeau and the Old Appleton Bridge stretching into Cape Girardeau County.

In 2017, 17,800 people from 36 states and 17 countries visited Perry County to view the eclipse.

"We anticipate having people from out-of-town in. We want to get them engaged with our community and let them learn a little bit more about some of the unique and special things we have in Perry County," Erzfeld said.

She added she had recently been in touch with a woman from London, England, who was scheduling group travel to Perry County.

'Hopefully we can build future tourism'

John Echimovich, the vice president of operations for Midamerica Hotels Corporation, oversees several hotels in Cape Girardeau.

Bookings for the weekend of the eclipse opened almost a year in advance; they sold out in barely a week.

"The last eclipse really did all the marketing necessary to attract visitors to our area for this one," Echimovich said. "It was just a big travel destination to be right in the path of the eclipse at its peak ... that we pretty much just had to put the information out there."

Typically, Sunday nights are slow ones in the hotel industry, but April 7, 2024, will bring hundreds of guests to Echimovich's Auburn Place, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express locations.

Staff has been preparing not only to handle the influx but also to direct visitors to local attractions to make the most out of their stay.

Outside of Cape Girardeau, the Benton Speedway, Bootheel Youth Museum in Malden, and Bollinger Mill State Historic Site will all play host to eclipse-themed events that Monday in April.

"Hopefully we can build future tourism by showing off our area, as it brings in folks that may have never thought about coming to Cape previously," he said.

Echimovich said the eclipse is expected to benefit local shops, restaurants and other businesses. He hopes travelers get a good impression of Southeast Missouri and that some of them can keep coming back.

What is the total duration of the eclipse in local cities?

According to the National Eclipse website, Cape Girardeau is the largest city in the state of Missouri that lies in the path of totality, but many smaller cities within Southeast Missouri will also get a glimpse of the total eclipse. According to the Farmers Almanac, totality begins in Cape Girardeau at 1:58 p.m.

Here are the approximate durations of eclipse totalities in local cities according to eclipse2024.org:

* Perryville: 3 minutes and 47 seconds

* Cape Girardeau: 4 minutes and 6 seconds

* Dexter: 3 minutes and 51 seconds

* Sikeston: 3 minutes and 31 seconds

* Poplar Bluff: 4 minutes and 8 seconds

* Marble Hill: 4 minutes and 9 seconds

* Jackson: 4 minutes and 10 seconds

* Chaffee: 4 minutes and 3 seconds

* Ste. Genevieve: 2 minutes and 42 seconds.

Nathan Gladden contributed reporting to this story.

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