Madras, A Little Farming Town, Sees Big Opportunity In Solar Eclipse
At her desk in the Madras city offices, Lysa Vattimo hauls out a fat binder full of documents, maps and lists. This is Madras’ solar eclipse plan.
"And it has a little bit of everything in it," Vattimo said flipping through the pages. "From port-a-potties to the public safety plan, where fire engines will be staged, where police will be staged."'
The eclipse will only last about two hours, with just two minutes of complete darkness. But those two minutes amount to months of planning for communities in the 70-mile viewing belt, otherwise known as the path of totality.
Madras is a normally quiet farming and industrial community of about 6,200 people that sits on Highway 97 about an hour north of Bend. Vattimo is an event planner and producer who was hired by the city to coordinate all things eclipse.
"They call me SEL for short," Vattimo said.
"S-E-L: Solar eclipse lady."
Madras typically has clear blue skies in mid-August. That’s why so many visitors are expected to flock here for the big event. Although the eclipse will occur over a narrow belt across the entire U.S., Madras has one of the highest chances for uninterrupted viewing.
"A lot of people tell us, quit inviting them in! Quit advertising this thing," Vattimo said.
But it wasn't the city of Madras that picked Jefferson County as a hotspot for the eclipse viewing. Astronomers did.
But since so many people are talking about Madras, why not make the most of it?
The city’s 325 hotel rooms have been booked for more than a year. Farmers are advertising fields as campgrounds. A four-day entertainment festival called “Solarfest” at the fairground hopes to attract thousands with concerts and science events.
And with so many campers in town, the grocery stores have a plan to stay stocked: they'll park refrigerated semi-trucks behind the stores full of produce, meat and other barbecue supplies.
So Madras is doing everything it can to turn a two-minute celestial event into a multi-day extravaganza. After all, no other town in Oregon seems to have hired an eclipse coordinator.
They’ve even made a logo: It’s the state of Oregon, Madras pinpointed with a “sunburst,” and the eclipse happening behind the peak of Mount Jefferson.
"A bunch of guys at the VFW are making engraved rocks and they’re selling with that logo," Vattimo said. "I thought that was cute."
Beyond promotion, there are safety and public health logistics to think through with 70,000 people on the ground at one time in a small town.
What if it’s 100 degrees and thousands of people become dehydrated? If someone breaks a leg, how will ambulances navigate clogged highways? And then there are practical details like Internet. With so many people Instagramming and Facebooking and running credit cards, the networks are expected to be jammed.
"We’ve talked to businesses about running on cash. Which then involves banks. And talking to banks to make sure their ATMs are all stocked up. Well, ATMs also run on internet. ... So there’s a trickle-down effect," Vattimo said.
And then there’s traffic. Officials expect cars will stagger in a few days before the eclipse happens on the 21st. But on Monday, Highway 97 could turn into 100-mile a parking lot.
"When the eclipse is over and that big mad rush of people that says ‘all right get in the car, we’re leaving! I think you’ll be in a hurry to go nowhere fast," Vattimo said.
These preparations are not cheap. Eclipse planning has cost the city more than a $100,000. Madras is expecting to recoup that through lodging taxes and other fees.
Vattimo says it’s worth it. This is a giant marketing opportunity for a community that often struggles economically.
She hopes those 70,000 visitors will fall in love with Madras. Maybe a few will move there.
"We look at this as a more than just that one-weekend opportunity for our commerce sector," Vattimo said. "We look at this as an opportunity to grow our city."
Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting