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Eclipse Draws Strong Business

Shoppers pick out solar eclipse t-shirts at the Idaho Falls Farmers Market on Saturday.
A sign advertising glasses for viewing the upcoming eclipse is seen at the Idaho Falls Farmers Market on Saturday.
Members of the Rowe family shop for eclipse branded t-shirts at the Idaho Falls Farmers Market on Saturday.
Most solar eclipse visitors have left eastern Idaho by now, though many of their dollars remain. Local businesses generally did well during eclipse weekend, Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce CEO Chip Schwarze said. Some retail outlets shut their doors Monday, but many hospitality-related businesses stayed open and reaped the rewards. “Restaurants and gas stations did good; hotels were all booked. I think they all had great weekends,” Schwarze said. “I think eastern Idaho did itself a huge favor this weekend in the way we treated our guests and conducted ourselves.” Idaho Falls officials estimate about 300,000 people visited eastern Idaho during eclipse weekend. Downtown Idaho Falls, in particular, was a hotspot for visitors staying in nearby hotels. Villa Coffeehouse Owner Chip Langerak said eclipse weekend brought more customers than any other comparable timespan in the Park Avenue business’ 12 years of operation. “It started winding up about 10 a.m. Saturday morning, and didn’t stop until I shut the doors (Monday,)” he said. “We had an unbelievable weekend. It actually trickled over into this morning, but it’s finally starting to get back to normal now.” Langerak said Saturday was Villa’s best day of the year with a 63 percent increase in normal traffic. Sunday overtook that as the coffeehouse’s best day ever with a 274 percent increase; then Monday shattered that with 365 percent more business than usual. “I used to work for Walmart as a manager. It felt like having a Black Friday for three straight days,” Langerak said. “We were big fans of the eclipse.” Langerak scheduled another employee for eclipse weekend. He and his wife, who are normally away from day-to-day shop operations, washed dishes and took orders. There were many repeat customers during the weekend, Langerak said. Visitors staked out Villa on Saturday, then made it part of their coffee, breakfast and lunch routines. “There was definitely a lot of foot traffic downtown. We had people walking from hotels, or walking over to the river and having coffee,” Langerak said. Extra food orders ahead of eclipse weekend prevented shortages, but baked goods went as fast as they could be produced. “Every time we would put a quiche out it would be gone in 20 minutes,” Langerak said. The Snakebite Restaurant on Park Avenue was crowded for lunch and dinner Monday. BlackRock Fine Wine and Craft Beer, also on Park Avenue, was busy Sunday and Monday afternoon when the bar is usually slow. Hungry travelers meant other businesses fared well too. The Exxon station southwest of Idaho Falls at 3365 Outlet Blvd. saw increases in business across the board Monday, manager Kim Pereira said. The gas station is located off Interstate 15, and there’s a field outside where tourists set up tents and chairs.
Deli sales Aug. 14 totaled $409; a week later on eclipse day the station sold $1,200 worth of food. Snack sales were up too. Online lottery tickets brought in $80 Aug. 14; on Monday customers purchased $1,482 in tickets. “It was mostly out-of-towners,” Pereira said. “We were busy from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. nonstop.” Not all station managers were as happy with the proceedings. KJ’s Travel Center at 615 E. Iona Road did worse business than usual, manager Karen Shore said. The station is located in northern Idaho Falls off U.S. Highway 20. Traffic kept truck drivers from fueling, Shore said, and locals stocked up on food the week before. “We probably picked up an extra $1,000 from eclipse tourists, but customer counts were slashed in half,” she said. “Between grocery and fuel sales we probably lost $40,000.” Eastern Idaho’s highway system likely prevented the maximum economic benefit that can accompany several hundred thousand visitors, Idaho Department of Labor Regional Economist Hope Morrow said. There were hourslong delays along major routes after the eclipse. Drivers don’t tend to leave the highway and spend money when there’s traffic, Morrow said. “Conceptually they think they won’t be able to get back on. There’s less chance of leaving to eat at a restaurant or shop because they’re trying to just get out of the area,” she said. “If we had a 10-lane freeway and traffic was easily able to get in and out, people would stay for a couple hours and use more of our local amenities.” A limited amount of lodging also likely limited economic impact, which Morrow researched before the eclipse. She concluded eastern Idaho can accommodate about 25,000 guests. “So if we expected around 450,000 people, about 95 percent wouldn’t be able to stay the night,” she said. “Most of them didn’t; we saw hundreds of thousands of people leaving at the same time.” Though hotel rooms were booked, a handful of campsites featured open reservations all weekend. Morrow believes campers saw weather forecasts a week ahead of the eclipse that suggested visibility in eastern Idaho would be poor, so they went elsewhere. “I think we saw fewer than we anticipated in general, and I think that had a big impact,” Morrow said.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.

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