The Great American Eclipse with its greatest length of totality in Southern Illinois not only shined a national spotlight on the region, but also was a real boost for local economies, local business leaders say.
“I think there is no question we hit this out of the park,” said Steve Mitchell, economic development director for the City of Carbondale.
Many businesses reported record sales during the afternoon and evening of Sunday, Aug. 20 — records which lasted only until Monday, the day of the actual total solar eclipse.
For Mitchell and other planners, it was good to see a positive conclusion to years of planning.
Even though actual counts of the number of visitors to the region are impossible to gauge, general thoughts are that Carbondale saw approximately 50,000 visitors and hundreds of thousands of people watched the eclipse across the region. Campgrounds and hotels as far away as Effingham and Evansville, Indiana, reported no vacancies and many of them required multiple-night reservations.
Carbondale Main Street Executive Director Meghan Cole said the extended lodging requirement may have led local eclipse event planners and businesses leaders to think large crowds would arrive in Southern Illinois as early as Friday — an expectation that did not pan out.
“I think many were optimistic that things would pick up Friday or early Saturday, and that wasn’t the case,” she said. “We did see thing begin to pick up Saturday evening and continue to build through the actual eclipse.”
“Obviously, many of our businesses expected that there would be a lot more business on Friday and early Saturday, so there was some disappointment there, but by Saturday night the crowds picked up considerably,” he said. “By Sunday, all of that disappointment was gone; almost everybody was happy. On Monday, every time I looked at a restaurant, there were lines. It was incredible.”
One of those lines on Monday snaked not only through the entire length of Mary Lou’s Grill in downtown Carbondale, but also out of the door and down the sidewalk, at times growing to a half-block. Owner Marilynn Martin called Monday the restaurant’s “best day in recent memory.”
“We even closed a little bit early, in time for the eclipse,” she says. “Considering that, it may have been our best day ever.”
Doug Fischer, operations manager for Carbondale’s Domino’s franchise, reported Carbondale sales were up 66 percent over the same day in 2016. Sales at several dining establishments inside the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Student Center, namely Starbucks and the Marketplace Food Court, set all-time records for sales on Monday.
Mitchell said his office had done some economic impact projections prior to the eclipse and he believes that the estimated benefits will be met.
“Obviously, the projections were based upon a large number of assumptions,” he said. “We estimated the number of visitors to be about 50,000 and then we considered everything from the increase in sales of groceries to more customers in restaurants and bars, retail sales and even parking. Based upon all of those assumptions, the estimated economic impact was projected to be about $8 million in Carbondale. Did we hit that? It’s really too early to tell, but it looks to me like the assumptions were met.”
Mitchell said the projections assumed visitors would spend just $20 each per day.
“I know from just my personal spending over the weekend, I beat the $20 a day really easily and I live here. I had access to free food, so I’m confident our visitors spent that much, too. There were lines at all of the T-shirt sellers. I think our businesses were packed from Saturday evening through Monday.”
Roxanne Conley of 710 Custom, one of the T-shirt vendors, said sales were really good.
“We sold out of almost everything except some very large sizes,” she said. “Everyone seemed to want shirts that said ‘Carbondale,’ so we took orders and are sending those to them.”
The entire region benefitted as well. Many tourism bureaus, civic groups and communities held workshops earlier in the year to help businesses know what to expect during the eclipse. The Carbondale Chamber of Commerce even brought in the head of Farm Progress Shows, a traveling three-day agricultural exposition that attracts 200,000, to share insights. Still, Mitchell says, the influx of travelers was surprising.
“I don’t think many of the communities outside of Carbondale were expecting the number of visitors that they had,” Mitchell said.
For example, he said that a community park in Benton had as many as 1,000 visitors during the eclipse.
“That just blew them away,” he said. “Exactly what I thought would happen did: the Interstate was jammed pack, time was getting closer to the eclipse and people started using their phones to search for parks and other places where they could watch the eclipse. They took the exits and parked.”
Mitchell said he has friends who watched the eclipse near Tunnel Hill and told him that anywhere a car could be parked, one was.
“I’m assuming that because of all of that, the gas stations, restaurants and convenient stores in those places did well, too,” he said.
Executive Director of the Marion Chamber of Commerce Dalus Ben Avi said while she has not yet talked with individual businesses about how they fared during the weekend, she said there was an increase in visitors, businesses and traffic.
“The parking lot at our office was full with eclipse watchers,” she said. “That wasn’t something we were expecting.”
Fischer says the economic benefits were felt across the region. He calls Monday’s business at other Domino’s “crazy.”
“Our Chester store’s sales were up 100 percent,” he says.
McDonald’s franchisee Moreland Bishop, which owns 14 restaurants throughout Southern Illinois, saw an upswing in business across the region, said Marketing Director Samantha Davis. She said the impact was significant both before and after the eclipse.
“Business was incredible on Monday,” she said. “Our interstate stores and Carbondale locations did very, very well. We had supervisors helping in Carbondale up to the eclipse and then with all of the traffic, they went to other stores to help out.”