Downtown Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is going to get a lot bigger, briefly. Terena Bell

A total solar eclipse may bring 100,000 or more visitors to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Can the town handle it?

It all starts with getting around. When you look at how Hopkinsville, Kentucky—population 33,203—plans to host up to 100,000 people, the first problem to tackle is transportation. On August 21st, this area about 60 miles from Bowling Green will be the best place in North America to watch the first total solar eclipse unique to the United States since 1776.

Entering in Oregon and exiting from South Carolina, the eclipse path will cut a band of complete darkness 70 miles wide. Everyone on the continent will get to see at least a partial eclipse. But the point of greatest eclipse—where the axis of the moon's shadow cone will pass closest to the Earth and give watchers 2 minutes and 40 seconds of “totality”—will be near Hopkinsville, bringing thousands of eclipse-chasers with it.

Total Eclipse of the Heartland: The track of the moon’s shadow across the Midwest will give some Kentuckians a long look. (NASA)

This is how a small town becomes a big town overnight.

“The traffic’s going to be horrible,” says local resident Mary Jane Cornelius.

Fortunately for Hopkinsville, celestial mechanics have eclipse prediction down to a science. It was ten years ago when Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Cheryl Cook received an email from an eclipse-chaser asking about the area. Once she learned it wasn’t a prank, the chamber notified local hotels and landowners. In 2015, with the shadow looming, the city and county started hosting town halls and formed 10 host committees. “What we’re trying to do,” says Mayor Carter Hendricks, “is just make sure that during the months leading up to the eclipse we’re doing everything we can to maximize the opportunities to get ourselves ready. Then, during the week of the eclipse, we roll out this red carpet.”

Getting visitors around is one big priority. Two years ago, Hopkinsville didn’t even have public transit. Now, the town has three bus routes averaging about 850 riders weekly; the system’s logged 55,000 rides in total so far. During the August event itself, Hopkinsville Transit will run an eclipse-specific route from camping areas to a local street festival, an area history museum, and other attractions. Shuttle vans will facilitate transfers between the existing three bus routes.

One of the new Hopkinsville Transit buses, which will help shuttle visitors in town for the August eclipse. (Terena Bell/CityLab)

The bus system, says Hendricks, wasn’t put into place just for the eclipse. The city needed it. “Here’s the wonderful story about it,” the mayor says. “Most of the folks riding, they’re riding to work or they’re going to college. They’re going to things that are really improving their lives and their families’ opportunities.”

Like much-bigger cities that host mega-events like the Olympics, Hopkinsville is trying to balance the need to invest in new services and infrastructure to serve one-time-only visitors with the longer-term needs of residents. But unlike Olympic host cities that take on these costs in the hopes of reaping economic gains, Hopkinsville didn’t choose to have an eclipse: The cosmos chose them. Preparations are therefore just as focused on making sure residents as well as visitors have a great weekend.

Brooke Jung, Solar Eclipse Marketing & Event Coordinator, promises that they won’t have to close any roads, responding to a persistent rumor that’s been going on around town. “Resident logistics is one of a few reasons,” she says.

Hopkinsville also considered making thoroughfares one way in order to better control the flow of traffic. This turned out to be more complicated than anticipated. The state roads—which make up Hopkinsville’s main entryways—run through multiple counties; the point of greatest eclipse is only five miles from both the Caldwell and Trigg County, Kentucky lines. Any change to a state road would have to be uniform across all three counties, which requires cooperation not just with each other, but with the state, as well as updating Google Maps and other GPS systems that tourists might use. Currently, the plan is to avoid radical traffic flow changes.

Hopkinsville is adding additional lanes to Ft. Campbell Boulevard, the city’s gateway road to nearby Interstate 24. But this expansion was already planned, however, as Hendricks again stresses the need for eclipse expenditures to be self-sustaining.

Without a specific line item for the event, Hopkinsville must fund its eclipse improvements from its $33.4 million general operating budget. “Seasonal labor, our capital budget, there’s a couple other line items we have done… Otherwise we’ve probably spent close to $200,000 already, and when it’s all said and done we’ll use north of a quarter of a million dollars of city money for the improvements, the seasonal labor, the overtime labor. It’s not cheap to get ready for something of this magnitude.”

But it may pay off in the end. Hopkinsville is likely to reap some yet-unknown economic benefits from their sky-watchers. And when the moon’s shadow passes and the visitors pack up their telescopes, the city should also be left with useful souvenirs of their brief time in the sun’s shadow: some long-term road improvements, a public bus system, and fond memories of being, briefly, the center of the universe.

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