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Science on Main Street: Totality in the Valley in Sweetwater, Tenn.


June 15, 2023 | Science on Main Street: Totality in the Valley in Sweetwater, Tenn. | By: Jessica Morgan and Hayley Isbill, City of Sweetwater, Tenn.  


Sweetwater’s Visitors on Main Street during partial eclipse phase. Photo by: Tony Cox of WMTY 98.3 in Sweetwater TN

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be exploring how different Main Street communities have incorporated science into their events and promotions. For some, the word “science” can intimidate, evoking memories of heavy textbooks and high school chem labs. The truth is, though, science is everywhere – even on our Main Streets. And inviting residents and visitors to experience science doesn’t have to mean breaking out the test tubes, either – instead, we can help foster meaningful and memorable experiences within our communities as they reimagine and expand their relationship with science outside of the traditional classroom setting.  
From an Earth Day Festival to a town that honors a fascinating historical significance within the science community to today’s story about a town of 6,000 hosting over 50,000 to witness a two-minute celestial event, we hope you enjoy this exploration of science on Main Streets. 
On August 21, 2017, Sweetwater, Tenn., our small city of 6,000 people, hosted an estimated 50,000 people from at least 36 countries and all 50 states – all for an event that lasted 2 minutes and 37 seconds. 
Any guesses as to the kind of occasion that could attract so many people for such a short period of time? If your community was located within the path of totality for the total solar eclipse in 2017, you’ll have no problem venturing a guess. And if your community is in the path of totality for the upcoming total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, we’re here to provide insights, recommendations, and helpful tips to help you and your community get prepared and make the most of this exciting celestial event. (Click here to see a map of the Main Street communities located within the path of totality.)
There is a lot to be done to prepare, but the 2024 host cities can rest assured in knowing that others have already done a lot of homework.  You can benefit from our experience and even our mistakes!
Tip #1: Learn about Totality 
Totality is the dark phase of the Eclipse. Crazy things happen. Cicadas chirp and animals react, the temperature drops -- it’s amazing. To make the most of this fascinating time, know how much totality you will have down to the second and promote it. The people who are coming are serious about the experience and want to know where they can go to get the longest possible totality. Educate your community on this awe-inspiring experience so you can help instill curiosity and a sense of wonder. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and truly an emotional occasion for most.   

Tip #2: Establish your Brand 

This is key to getting your community recognized! Play on your assets – what makes your community unique? What do you have that others don’t? Create a special identity for your eclipse related programming. This could include a logo, hashtag, and catchy phrases. Sweetwater’s was #TotalityIntheValley, and on the back of our shirts, we had the phrase “I Blacked Out for 2 minutes and 37 seconds in Sweetwater, TN” printed. Once these things are established, put them on everything!    

Tip #3: Provide Resources to Residents

In addition to inviting people into your town, there are ways to make sure locals and business owners are able to join in and know what to expect! We communicated often and early with our citizens to try and make them aware that traffic would likely be an issue that day. We wanted to make sure that those who needed medications or had medical appointments, didn’t plan on trying to get out on Eclipse Day to go to the pharmacy or doctor. We also wanted to alert locals to plan ahead and not wait until the day of the event to get groceries. For our business owners, we felt it was important that they communicate with their employees that getting to and from work that day would be an issue, and that they needed to plan ahead with scheduling to better accommodate their needs.    We utilized multiple communication methods, including reverse 911 non-emergency calls, posting videos on social media and hosting several public meetings to help remind residents and businesses of the potential traffic issues that may prevent them from getting necessities the day of. And finally, we asked our locals to stay home and enjoy the eclipse from their own backyards to help ease traffic congestion.     

Tip #4: Consider your Weather 

Understand that weather is a key element to the viewing experience. Communities that have better weather will see more tourists come. A storm can ruin the experience, and even gray skies can cause visitors to change locations at the last minute. 

Tip #5: Promote Your Plans 

Start planning and publishing your plans now! These travelers plan early. We had people calling 18 months ahead of time to book lodging. Even if your plans aren’t completely worked out, go ahead and make it known that you’re aware and interested in creating a great experience for visitors! 

Tip #6: Recognize the Opportunity 

Make the most of this opportunity to create revenue for your Main Street program and an economic boost for your community. Sell parking spaces, ISO certified glasses, campsites, vendor spaces, t-shirts.  Believe it or not, our city made $90,000 selling these items and used it to reinvest in our downtown area. We saw businesses born out of this event and made huge inroads in pipeline development and building our vendor base for future events. The eclipse event put us on the map! 

Tip #7: Prepare the Essentials 

Book your necessities now! We are talking about portable toilets, viewing areas, traffic and safety barricades, toilet paper, bottled water, dumpsters, and more. These items get scarce if you wait until the last minute! Most importantly, BUY GLASSES!  You need ISO certified glasses for your volunteers, workers, and visitors! 

Tip #8: Make a Solid Communication Plan 

Find a media partner as soon as possible. In Sweetwater, we hosted all three news stations from the closest major market in Knoxville onsite downtown on eclipse day. Their coverage and support leading up to the event made all the difference in the success of our event.   
Prepare your communication plan keeping each of these groups in mind: Residents who have a great viewing spot in their own yard, visitors, businesses, essential services, lodging facilities, and emergency services. Because of the unprecedented traffic on our roads, we encouraged citizens to prepare in advance: picking up prescriptions and other vital items prior to the event and avoiding travel during the eclipse. We asked visitors not to wait to the last hour to try to drive in. When traffic left after the eclipse, it was bumper-to-bumper for hours.   

Tip #9: Come Eclipse, Rural is the Place to Be 

If you are a rural community, this is your time to shine. The eclipse is best viewed in quiet, darker areas, free from streetlights and traffic.  We partnered with our utility board to deactivate the solar sensors on the streetlights so they would not come on during totality.  Livingston County NY, made up of several villages just south of Rochester, NY, is a great example of a rural community promoting their “Dark Sky Destination”.  This is all about the experience, so emphasize your rural areas! 

Tip #10: Safety Considerations 

We held many safety meetings incorporating representatives from police, fire, EMS, 9-1-1 dispatch, sheriff, schools and bus opera
tors, railroad, and state agencies.  Again, having backup communication plans is essential. Extra cell towers can be brought in, and backup radios were vital due to the influx of people. 
Many visitors are unfamiliar with your area, so we did a few extra steps to keep children safe.  We had the art camp build a space shuttle that was set on top of the gazebo as the “Lost Kids” area.  That way parents could show the space shuttle to even non-verbal children in case they got separated in the crowd.  We had a volunteer man the gazebo all day.  Children were also given armbands with their parent’s phone number on the inside so we could contact

Tip #11: Incorporate Science

There are many ways to incorporate science into your eclipse programming. Our library made viewfinders and aligned their summer reading program in a space theme, featuring space-related books, movies, and media for months.  Our art teacher hosted a summer camp in city hall’s basement and the children painted a “Starry Night” themed eclipse mural that people stood in line for hours to take a photo! If you’re looking for support in developing science-related activities, you could involve your schools, community organizations, colleges and universities and libraries to create projects leading up to the Eclipse. 


For more Science on Main Street stories, click here and here.