A Kentucky Town Aims to Shine Long After the Great American Eclipse
The small city of Hopkinsville had its day in the sun — and dark — on August 21, as an estimated 150,000 out-of-town guests swelled the city’s population by a factor of five. Having company is always a good incentive to spruce things up. Will the town’s careful planning for the eclipse pay off with longer-term benefits?
The Corner Coffeehouse in downtown Hopkinsville, Kentucky, has seen a mix of brisk business and slower periods since Amanda and April Huff-McClure opened their shop at the end of March in a restored, two-story brick building next door to city hall.
When people talk about downtown revitalization in communities where the old core of a town has struggled to recover from decades of neglect and retail retreat, this is exactly the kind of place they imagine.
The regulars get coffee and muffins to go in the morning and head to nearby offices. Others come for lunch and linger with friends. They like the view and the pace. There’s seating for 10 or so customers inside and a few small sidewalk tables next to a large picture window.
One block over from the Corner Coffeehouse, I have a small office on the second floor of a law office, and soon after the coffeehouse opened I began talking to Amanda and April about what they expected when thousands of visitors poured into Hopkinsville (pop. 32,000) for the total solar eclipse on August 21. No one was certain what to expect.
The city had been marketing itself as Eclipseville, and the welcome sign was out for anyone who wanted to spend a day or longer in the community that NASA had designated as the point of greatest eclipse, or the point where the axis of the moon’s shadow would be closest to Earth during the eclipse. The exact spot was actually several miles from Hopkinsville in a farm field near Cerulean, a tiny community straddling the Christian-Trigg county line in flat, fertile Western Kentucky.
But Hopkinsville had been tagged as the city closest to the eclipse epicenter 10 years earlier, and the city was not about to miss the opportunity for a multi-million-dollar tourism boom and the potential for worldwide exposure. And with a new mayor who’d previously served as president of the Christian County Chamber of Commerce, the community got serious about sprucing up and preparing for company on a grand scale.
In the months leading up to the eclipse, crowd estimates kept creeping up. The city took reservations for camping spots and one-day viewing sites at several parks. Two whiskey distilleries in the county rented out space for overnighters and promoted big plans to celebrate with spirits, musical entertainment and food trucks.
Almost everyone I knew had people coming to stay overnight. It was going to be a homecoming like Hopkinsville had never seen. While the town got a good scrubbing, locals like me planted more flowers, pulled out air mattresses and filled up chest freezers with barbecued pork. My husband and I kept buying more craft beer, hoping to satisfy every taste for a few dozen guests we expected. Then we packed in ice cream, brownies, hot dogs and pizza for our five grandchildren. We bought ice early and stocked up on paper towels and toilet paper. One day I found an excuse to procrastinate on a writing project and devoted hours to creating the ultimate eclipse musical playlist on Spotify.
The local museum paid a crew to re-paint the historic town clock, and the county historian, William T. Turner, devoted himself to winding the clock’s gears every few days so it would keep correct time. The city got busy installing window tint and eclipse logos in vacant downtown storefronts. Someone put an eclipse sign over an old “Sexy and Sassy” sign for a shoe store than had been out of business for years.
Even the Crime Stoppers most wanted posters of two little-known fugitives – which hung for years in one of downtown’s most haggard-looking buildings – came down. Then the week before the eclipse, a couple hundred people turned out at dusk to see the ceremonial lighting of a new marquee on the 89-year-old Alhambra Theatre.
As we got closer to the big day, Brooke Jung, the eclipse coordinator and marketing expert the city had hired a year earlier, said it looked like 100,000 was a conservative estimate for visitors in the city and county combined. Local officials urged residents to buy groceries, top off their gas tanks and get cash before the crowds arrived.
As it turned out, nothing could prepare the coffeehouse owners for the crowds they would serve. Amanda and April worked from 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. four days straight – only taking an hour break on Eclipse Day, which fell on a Monday. They closed long enough to walk across the street to Grace Episcopal Church, where they’d been married last year, to meet up with friends and experience totality, when the moon blocked the sun for 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
Visitors began arriving on the Friday before the eclipse, the same day the city shut down a few streets for a three-day festival downtown.
“Friday was a good day, but the intensity came in waves,” Amanda told me. “Saturday was amazing. Sunday, honestly, was what we were expecting and planning for – breakneck speed most of the day and great numbers. April and I said at the end of the day that Sunday was the most we could do in a day. And then on Monday, we doubled that. Monday was insane for us. We got the last available parking space in the free public parking at 5:45 a.m. We had people banging on the glass wanting to know when we were going to open by about 6:15.
“At 6:30, when April unlocked the doors, there was a line of people that started clapping and cheering. Most of the morning there was a line of people out the door. It was crazy intense and I honestly don’t know how we physically maintained the pace.”
The eclipse brought an estimated $30 million in spending and a crowd of roughly 150,000, Mayor Carter Hendricks told me two days after the eclipse. (That is an early estimate. City officials were still studying aerial photographs to gauge the crowd.)
The weekend before the eclipse many locals were surprised that traffic wasn’t more congested. Tents had popped up everywhere but getting around town was relatively easy. Outside of downtown, stores and restaurants were not as busy as many expected.
The actual number of eclipse-chasers who’d come to Hopkinsville and Christian County wasn’t clear until Monday afternoon when most of the visitors tried to leave around the same time. Roads leading out of town, including U.S. 41 and the Pennyrile Parkway, snarled to a crawl for hours that evening. State workers on ATVs drove up and down medians to hand out bottled water to people stuck in traffic. Part of my family sat for two hours on the parkway, the main route north, and eventually gave up and came back to spend another night. Other drivers stuck it out and said it took 10 hours or longer to get to Lexington, Kentucky, a drive that normally takes just over three hours.
Two days after the eclipse, the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper devoted most of its front page to a story praising Hopkinsville for the preparation and hospitality extended to such a large gathering.
Photographer Michael Clevenger had been especially charmed by my friend Margaret Prim, the executive director of the Pennyroyal Arts Council, after she let the Courier-Journal staffers use the Alhambra Theatre on Main Street for their base during the long, hot weekend.
“We had planned for the eclipse for a month. Hopkinsville planned for it for a decade,” Clevenger wrote. “In the end you can plan for portable toilets and traffic flow and campgrounds for 200,000 of your closest friends. But you can’t buy helpfulness. You can rent hospitable. You can’t fake friendly. Hopkinsville figured out how to host the world but remembered the intangible things that make us uniquely Kentucky. And it showed.
“The sun and the moon may have stolen the show in Hopkinsville on August 21, but Hopkinsville stole my heart.”
Some of the news reports I read and heard in the months leading up to the Great American Eclipse described Hopkinsville as a “sleepy town” or a “tiny town.” In some reports, my hometown came off as almost idyllic.
Hopkinsville is the seventh largest city in Kentucky and the most racially diverse community outside of the two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. About 32 percent of the city’s residents are African-American. Many of our residents have lived around the world while serving in the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, which is a 15-minute drive from downtown Hopkinsville.
The city’s median household income is $34,600, and 22 percent of our residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.
I’ve known Hopkinsville, warts and all, as a nearly lifelong resident. My family moved to the city in 1966, when I was 4 years old. From 1986 to 2016, I was a reporter and eventually an editor and columnist for the local daily, the Kentucky New Era.
In 30 years with my hometown newspaper, I’d picked up some skills in grousing. I was wary of most announcements that came from the Chamber of Commerce, I’d sparred with many public officials who wanted to side-step unflattering situations, and I knew on cue when economic development folks with shiny ground-breaking shovels would proclaim, “It’s a great day in Hopkinsville.” The slogan became such a cliché, some of us in the newsroom threatened to have it printed on T-shirts. This was part of my healthy skepticism.
These days, if I have a blind spot for civic pride, it rests in downtown Hopkinsville. Several new businesses have taken hold in the past decade, including my favorite lunch spot, The Place – A Local Eatery, where I eat at a counter tucked back in the kitchen of an old storefront building on Sixth Street. Next door is Griffin’s Studio, a shop where three of my grandchildren spent a week at art camp this summer. Up on Main Street, Quincy’s restaurant serves Southern fare, the Black Patch has steaks and seafood, and the Main Street Tavern has pizza.
The Hopkinsville Brewing Co. on Fifth Street is another new spot. The afternoon of the eclipse, my husband and I sat outside the brewery and talked about local history with two men from Cincinnati who’d spent the weekend camping and waiting for the moon to turn the landscape dark.
Hendricks, the mayor, told me he hopes regional visitors like those come back.
But even while local leaders look to market Hopkinsville to out-of-towners, I think the eclipse gave locals something I haven’t seen in a long time – if ever – in my hometown.
I think people wanted a reason to feel good about Hopkinsville. Getting ready for company and then reveling in the party did something significant for the town’s self-esteem.
Now if we can just keep those wanted fugitive posters out of the heart of downtown, if more entrepreneurs like Amanda and April see value in downtown, if more people want to spruce up and dig in, then I’ll believe this turn in Hopkinsville’s fortunes is real. I’ll believe it’s about much more than a solar eclipse.