By Valeri DeCastris
Advancing age and innate audacity empower me to shamelessly question the presence of “the Emperor’s clothes” and to speak of the “elephant in the room” in various situations. And so I will…as regards Carbondale Eclipse 2017. Since the City of Carbondale has asked businesses for their impressions, here is my unsolicited citizen critique and some well-intended suggestions for an even more successful 2024 event. And if you don’t like my opinions, don’t bark at me – do as Ozzie Osbourne did at totality - Bark at the Moon!
Before I offer my observations, please allow me to establish my “cred” so that my comments are taken in context. I absolutely love southern Illinois and was invested in it for years. It is a very special and wondrous place. I think that Southern Illinois University (SIU) is the greatest college in the State. I am a very proud and enthusiastic Saluki and a lifetime SIU alumni association member. I consider southern Illinois to be my second home. I lived there nine years and loved every minute of it. I worked full-time at SIU as a laboratory researcher and earned my Bachelor and Master Degrees in the sciences there.
I even owned a home in Carbondale, uncommon for a single woman in 1980. I was active in non-profit organizations and developed my social consciousness there. I volunteered with political campaigns, Southern Counties Action Movement, Shawnee Solar Project, the Peace Coalition, a food cooperative and I taught yoga at SIU’s Free School. I interned at Touch of Nature Environmental Center, Giant City State Park and in deep southern Illinois.
I lobbied the Carbondale City Council and marched on South Illinois Avenue. I was appointed by former Mayor Hans Fisher to the city’s Energy Futures Task Force, whose recommendations were incorporated into the Goals for Carbondale planning document. I trained as an energy auditor, helped to create the City’s Energy Division and was offered a position as its first director. My graduate practicum was a waste oil recycling project on campus and I surveyed southern Illinois voters on hazardous waste issues for my Master’s thesis.
I costumed up for 19 Halloweens in a row, partied in Bucky Fuller’s dome home and was fortunate to hear him speak at the Arena. I hiked the Shawnee National Forest nearly every weekend, after the de riguer Saturday’s Farmer’s market. In short, I stepped up and stomped on my beloved southern Illinois terra. And since moving away to Springfield and now to my hometown of Rockford, I have run back to southern Illinois every chance that I get.
So, I and my husband (another proud SIU graduate) jumped at the chance to visit the area that many have affectionately called “the center of the universe” to witness the big celestial event, the 2017 Carbondale Eclipse. We planned several months in advance and made hotel reservations, giving our local friends a break from hosting us. They had expressed surprise that we found reasonable hotel reservations and had warned us to bring lots of water and even a “potty” container, predicting that we might get stranded on our way to… uhm… ”Woodstock.” They steered clear of Carbondale, as surely many locals and others unfortunately did…scared away by good intentions. This problem became more obvious to us as the weekend unfolded.
Our trek was over 700 miles round trip. We arrived Friday and left late afternoon Tuesday. We wouldn’t have missed “it” for the world. Except of course, that we almost did, since we were at the Stadium “event.” Please know that I applaud the hard work and coordination that went into planning this first-ever event that put southern Illinois and SIU so wonderfully in the world spotlight. Kudos to Mayor Henry, Carbondale and Main Street, SIU, Makanda and the Tourism Bureau for even attempting to predict and accommodate such an event. The Strip looks wonderful – better than ever! I predict that Eclipse 2024 will be even better. I hope that my suggestions serve in some small way to help Southern Illinois refine this 2017 “trial run.”
So, here goes. First of all, getting parking passes with our Stadium tickets was inconvenient in person. They weren’t available until July and then only at a few locations open only during office hours. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening seemed pitifully bereft of activity on the Strip. It was painful to witness. We easily found parking places on Illinois Avenue both day and night. We’ve seen busier regular weekends…anyone remember the Strip closures? We were told that parents were encouraged to leave Carbondale earlier in the week. Why? The dearth of visitors was made more obvious by the fact that there were too many events in too many areas – Shadowfest, the Marketplace, Family Fun Zone, Stadium, Arena, Crossroads Festival and Arts and Crafts Fair, Homegrown Stage, not to mention private events at the wineries, Varsity Theater, Moonstock, Bald Knob, and the Pagan and Native American events. This isn’t easily or even controlled but.. whew! There was too much spread too thin and too few people in town.
For example, there was no need for music stages at the Arena, Shadowfest and downtown. There weren’t even any emcees for the bands at the Arena stage and just a handful of people at the concerts. So few people in fact that the Mummies didn’t even set up a sales table – instead throwing out t-shirts to the “crowd.” Our friends, the Boat Drunks likewise seemed to have few takers…much different from their usual crowds. Too much spread over too many miles – the carnival seemed unnecessary – the vendors were gave away food Sunday night for lack of sales.
We eagerly attended Max Kaplan’s live Planetary Radio Show, but there were many glitches in the sound, simulcast and live broadcasting of the show. The program’s prize contest and question and answer segment at the end was not videotaped (a SIU snafu – not a Shryock Wi-Fi signal issue). This prompted Max Kaplan to sheepishly apologize on SIU’s behalf. It was embarrassing. This shouldn’t happen at a college known for its renowned Communications program, especially with all the time and effort that undoubtedly went into preparing for such a momentous world-wide broadcast.
The Stadium “event” was not what we expected in terms of programming. There was no dignitary or alumni recognition and no printed program to follow. The events on the surrounding grounds and inside and outside of the Arena all competed for our attention at the same time. Too add insult to injury, after the Eclipse ended, there was no traffic control on McLafferty Road, so we missed Tawl Paul’s post-Eclipse performance on the downtown Homegrown stage because it took us an hour to get downtown…so much for bypassing Illinois Avenue to avoid traffic. Also, it was difficult to decipher that stage’s performance schedule.
In the evenings, although Shadowfest was well attended, it was sparse enough that we parked in the SAME parking space in the adjacent lot two nights in a row. So much for the Apocalyptic Mad Max scene that we were warned about. Speaking of the Apocalypse, I heard that there were nearly 90 policemen on duty for the weekend. Really? I understand that there were 12 policemen during the infamous 1970 riots. Perhaps the ghost of Halloween pasts spooked the city? One can’t be too careful with public safety nowadays, and thankfully, the weekend was peaceful…but isn’t that maybe a bit of overkill? I vote for more Eclipse Day traffic cops instead!
Food for thought for 2024...less is more. Don’t scare local people and tourists away by optimistically over-predicting attendance or visitor arrival times. Thankfully, Carbondale seemed to finally gain more visitors and traffic by Sunday evening. But the weekend surely did not live up to anyone’s expectations. I hope that there was a net economic gain outside of the obvious intangibles that will result from linkages and national/international media coverage.
Reduce the amount of music stages and events. Concentrate the event more. Provide better traffic control after Eclipse 2024. Ditch the carnival. Produce a better Stadium program. Install more electric vehicle charging stations. Produce for purchase some commemorative videos or TV programs, printed pictorials or books and souvenirs (besides t-shirts) of these wonderful moments in time for southern Illinois. It was and will be southern Illinois’ time in the sun and we hope that the region and university continues to shine brightly. Here’s to your next big gig in 2024! We hope to see you there! Go Dawgs! Don’t shoot the messenger!