Missouri's small cities and businesses set to cash in on the eclipse | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri's small cities and businesses set to cash in on the eclipse

Aug 17, 2017

Jason Alexander's family has owned the Budget Lodging Hotel in St. Clair, Missouri, for nearly three decades. During that time, only one event has sparked a customer to book a room years in advance.

In 2011, an Oklahoma man reserved at room at Alexander's hotel for Monday's solar eclipse. That early planner will have plenty of company.

"We have people from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Canada," said Alexander, who has run the hotel for nearly a decade.

Several picnic tables in a St. Clair park have been painted as part of the effort to beautify the city before the eclipse.
Credit Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio

In St. Clair, a city of about 5,000 people off Interstate 44, about an hour west of St. Louis, residents are sprucing up the community by repairing rundown buildings and store fronts to make a good impression on thousands of expected visitors. The community will experience the total eclipse for two minutes and 29 seconds. City officials are convinced the impact will extend well beyond money.

"Just an overall boost in helping St. Clair be on the map," City Administrator Travis Dierker said.

Dierker expects more than 15,000 people to flock to St. Clair, more than tripling the town’s population. Some of those people will be staying at Alexander's hotel just outside downtown St. Clair. Built by his family in the 1980s, it sits on a hill and is an ideal spot to watch the celestial event.

Many visitors likely will want souvenirs of the trip, so St. Clair has opened an eclipse store, with T-shirts, glasses and other items related to the big event. It's on the main downtown street, just a few doors down from Lewis Cafe.

The restaurant is a city institution, opening in 1938. And it's run by the same family all these years later.

"We want to be prepared," said manager Daniel Holmes.

The owners of Lewis Cafe in downtown St. Clair, Missouri, are adding staff and ordering extra food to meet anticipated eclipse-related demand.
Credit Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio

"I think we've got an extra 200 T-shirts that we are going to be selling. Our Lewis Cafe shirts."

Holmes added that the restaurant could have close to a dozen people working to handle anticipated demand, compared to a normal day when about five are usually on the floor. He said the restaurant should have enough customers to easily cover any additional expenses with enough left over to put something extra in paychecks.

"I would hope we'd be able to pay everybody for holiday pay after this."

St. Clair is one of several small Missouri communities in the shadow of the eclipse. That is providing an opportunity for many rural entrepreneurs.

The online lodging company Airbnb is noticing an increase in homeowners from smaller communities offering rooms, or entire homes, for rent. In Sullivan, there have been about 140 bookings for the days around the eclipse, compared to none a week earlier.

Listings on the site show rates ranging from a few hundred dollars a night, to a few thousand.   

Spokesman Bret Breit said the company charges a 3 percent fee, so hosts keep 97 percent of the rental price. Those bookings could have a snowball effect on small town restaurants and shops, which wasn't possible five or 10 years ago. 

"People would have driven a car in - right for the moment - and then they would have left right away because they would have had no choice," he said. "Unless they want to sleep in their car."   

The St. Clair Area Chamber of Commerce has ordered hundreds of T-shirts that will be sold around the eclipse. The organization has adopted the slogan "Get Your Eclipse on Route 66."
Credit Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio

Breit also pointed out that around 35 percent of Missouri renters currently registered in the Airbnb system are first-timers, with much of that related to the eclipse.   

There is also a strong demand for sleeping spots in the great outdoors.   

Many campgrounds are reporting an increase in users, including Missouri State Parks. They have camp sites that can't be reserved, but those are expected to go quickly over the next few days as people lock down their viewing positions. 

Gene Vale has played a key role in eclipse preparations at state parks. He said 16 system locations are planning special events, which will mean extra workers and volunteers. Many of them were already putting in a lot of hours around the Missouri State Fair.   

Vale is convinced that it will all be worth it when the big moment arrives.   

"When totality comes, everything stops," he said. "We are going to let people experience that. That's what it's all about."  

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