Eclipse tourism should mean big revenue boost for region
By Amye Anderson
UCBJ Managing Editor
COOKEVILLE – They came. They stayed. They spent. While the official numbers are still being tallied, tourism-related revenue tied to last Monday’s total solar eclipse event is likely to make many local business owners and community leaders happy.
Zach Ledbetter, vice president of visitor development at the Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau, estimates the event brought tens of thousands of tourists into the area.
However, pinpointing an exact number of visitors in town specifically for the eclipse event isn’t easy.
“With this event there are no ticket sales; there are planned events throughout the entire county and then there are ad-hoc events that people just show up at locations such as maybe Dogwood Park or Cane Creek Park that are public facilities but not necessarily hosting events,” he said. “So, it really is hard to put a number on that.”
More than 10,000 people were estimated to be on Tennessee Tech’s campus alone. The university was named a NASA-official viewing location for the eclipse and hosted several events including an Eclipse Fest and Viewing Party – both of which were free and open to the public.
While getting an exact number of tourists in the area specifically for the eclipse and related festivities may be difficult, it’s likely Cookeville and Putnam County will reap the benefits of their spending while here.
“I definitely think that spending over the weekend was increased in a direct impact to retail partners, to dining establishments, and even attractions,” Ledbetter said. “So, you see that sales tax increase not only for the state level but the city and county as well get some of that revenue in. That’s really big. That helps us citizens. That’s what’s so important about tourism and visitor development.”
In anticipation of last Monday’s total solar eclipse, many local business owners faced a critical dilemma – to open their doors or stay closed.
With viewing parties and events scattered throughout the area, some chose to settle in at the historic West Side, near the train depot, to watch the eclipse.
Of the mix of retail businesses and eateries that line the streets near the depot, only a few opened prior to the eclipse Monday.
“The entire West Side was extremely slow, with few cars parked on an otherwise crowded West Broad Street,” Jay Albrecht, owner of Seven Senses Food & Cheer. “It was like a ghost town.”
“However, at about 2:30 p.m., the people started pouring into the restaurant and our dining room got full in a matter of minutes,” Albrecht added. “What is otherwise a very slow time of day (2 p.m. until 5 p.m.) was very busy and that carried over into our dinner service.”
Bill Hedderick, with World Foods International Grocery and Delicatessen, reported an estimated 20 percent increase in sales for the restaurant, despite closing for approximately two hours for the eclipse itself.
In 2015, $122 million in direct tourism expenditures created a $338 savings per household for Putnam County homeowners.
More detailed data related to hotel stays and sale tax collections during the month of August, and the weekend of the eclipse, is expected to be available in the coming weeks.
And it’s not just the dollars spent here during the day of and the days leading up to the eclipse. The exposure of the local community to a much larger audience that opens up Cookeville and the surrounding area to new tourism markets is invaluable.
According to Ledbetter, at least 40 states and 15 countries – including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, Netherlands, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Spain – were represented by tourists who trekked to Cookeville specifically for the eclipse event.
Hotel rooms were booked well in advance in anticipation of the event and several nearby campsites were reported to be at capacity.
“I kind of said leading up to (the eclipse), I think this is the highest potential event for international travel we’ve ever had,” Ledbetter said. “And, obviously that played true.”
In comparison, usually two or three countries are represented during the H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally.
More locally, in terms of U.S. travelers, Cookeville is already centrally located and a prime location to attract visitors.
“Our Cookeville-Putnam County area is already within a day’s drive of 75 percent of the U.S. population,” Ledbetter said. “How many millions of people does that open you up to.”
While some chose to drive to the Cookeville-Putnam County area, there were some who took advantage of the close proximity of the Upper Cumberland Regional Airport and chose to fly in for the eclipse event. Approximately 140 to 150 aircraft reportedly flew in for the event.