Leaders from at least one Wayne County town are making plans for a horde of sun-chasing tourists that is expected here when the sun goes into hiding for a few minutes on April 8, 2024.
Hagerstown town hall officials, town council members, the town parks department, police and fire chiefs, the airport board president, the school superintendent, the library staff and the merchants association came to a meeting called by Chris LaMar, town manager, to start the wheels planning for what might be the largest crowd of visitors in the town’s history.
Mary Walker, director, Nancy Sartain and Angel Gray from the Wayne County Convention & Tourism Bureau attended the April 11 meeting at Town Hall to provide insights and ideas.
Using the experience of past solar eclipses as a guide, Walker and others said Wayne County should be prepared for more than 100,000 visitors on and before the day of the eclipse. Dalton Township, just north of Hagerstown, is one of the areas where the sun will be totally hidden by the moon for the longest period of time: about 4 minutes.
“Dalton Township is kind of like the Holy Grail” for eclipse watchers, Walker said. Thousands want to be in the path of totality, where the sun will be completely dark. Bloomington, Indiana, will have a slightly longer period of totality than Dalton, “But there’s only so many people that can go to Bloomington, so the die-hards will look to go there (to Dalton).”
Officials from Purdue University have estimated Wayne County could easily have 100,000 visitors associated with the eclipse, while Carmel and the Indianapolis area could have double that many. Western Wayne News first reported on the eclipse preparations in a Feb. 22, 2023, cover story.
LaMar gave an outline of areas of concern. He said a total eclipse brought more than 116,000 visitors to the Hopkinsville, Kentucky, area in 2017. Hopkinsville, with about 31,000 residents in a county of about 70,000, is similar to the Wayne County area.
Many eclipse watchers will come to Wayne County for the full weekend before the Monday eclipse, Walker said. They’ll be looking for things to do and places to eat and stay. She and the Tourism Bureau are coordinating a county planning effort that she hopes will involve Richmond and all of the smaller towns and communities.
“We hope to have an events calendar so that as much as possible, people won’t be competing with each other” for visitors, she said. She showed a logo designed by local artist Carvin Rinehart that can be localized to each community. “The other thing is cohesiveness. We want a Wayne County (eclipse) logo and have each community be part of it.”
LaMar said planning needs to happen for safety (fire, police and ambulance); food; sanitation (public restrooms and porta-potties); special events leading up to and after the eclipse; and, perhaps most importantly, resident relations.
Town Council member Brian Longbons said coordinated planning now will make the difference between a favorable impression in the eyes of visitors or “a disaster for all the communities.” And, he noted, everyone who lives here will want to observe the eclipse as well.
Although no firm plans emerged from the meeting, many ideas were discussed. Gary Schuette, who chairs the Heart of Hagerstown Business Association, said its members will likely support anything the town thinks is beneficial.
Town Council member Fred Dill said the town should make overnight camping available at the parks and airport. He suggested immediate contact with companies that supply portable bathroom facilities.
Hagerstown Airport Board President Mike Habzansky said the board is well aware that the grass landing strip on the town’s south side is the nearest to Dalton and will be making plans for it, possibly including renting camping places for pilots and others.
Town Council President Becky Diercks asked if Nettle Creek School Corporation would consider allowing parking on some of its parking lots.
Nettle Creek School Superintendent Emily Schaeffer said teachers are already talking excitedly about educational opportunities related to the eclipse. She received school board approval on April 12 to designate the day of the eclipse as an e-learning day, keeping students out of school so buses won’t be bogged down in traffic and so students can observe the event.
Parks superintendent Mike Beeson is considering how to provide camping in the town’s two parks, where Little League Baseball would normally be practicing.
Janelle Richardson of the Hagerstown-Jefferson Township Library staff said they are hoping to have educational programs about the eclipse, starting with a lunar eclipse that will happen this September. The library will be purchasing special glasses for observation of the solar eclipse.
Walker commended the group for starting now. “Truly, this could be an opportunity for everyone,” she said. Even farmers along the path of totality could make a little money by renting parking spots for the eclipse.
The group agreed that ongoing planning will continue, with meetings called as needed.
A version of this article appeared in the April 26 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.