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How Rochester, New York, hopes the eclipse brings a lasting economic boom to city

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(ROCHESTER, N.Y.) — Seven years ago, Debra Ross wondered why she should care about an eclipse.

Her daughter, Ella, vowed that she would get her driver’s license and that they would take a road trip to Missouri to see the 2017 total solar eclipse that stretched across the U.S.

“I was still skeptical about this,” Ross told ABC News. “I knew what an eclipse was, but I didn’t know what the big deal was. It gets dark every day. I know what a shadow is, right? Why is it such a big deal?”

Ross and her daughter drove to Kimmswick, Missouri, — about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis — where they found a railroad trestle and watched the eclipse. As Ross watched the sun slowly be obscured — and then completely covered — by the moon, she felt a change come over her.

“When totality happened … and the world around us just whooshed down to darkness, and I saw the stars come out around the sun, and it looked like this velvet hole in the sky … I was just completely transformed and taken,” she said. “So, after totality, I understood what a human and what a unifying kind of community experience this was.”

Ross knew the next total solar eclipse in North America was happening on April 8 and that her home city of Rochester, New York, was going to be in the path of totality. She wanted the city to be prepared, so she became the Rochester Eclipse Task Force chair and started contacting community members.

For the past seven years, Ross said the local government, museums, and small businesses—from restaurants to brewing companies to chocolate shops—in the mid-size city have been preparing to welcome hundreds of thousands of tourists to watch the total solar eclipse on April 9.

Store owners, residents and local officials are hoping the eclipse brings an economic boom to a city that was once a hub of industry and has struggled to recover from the pandemic that shuttered so many small businesses.

‘Wonders for the economy’

Rochester is estimating the eclipse will bring in between 300,000 and 500,000 visitors and between $10 million to $12 million from Friday to Monday, Mayor Mailk Evans told ABC News. He said the celestial event is a great opportunity to market the city from an economic development standpoint.

“The eclipse is only about three minutes and 38 seconds, but what we’ve said is no, we want to make it three days, and even longer,” he said. “So, we’ve used this as an opportunity to have people come to Rochester to see what all of the region has to offer.”

The city has gone all out, including a festival at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC), an all-day celebration at the public market, performances by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, art exhibits, eclipse-themed specials at restaurants and eclipse-themed merchandise being sold including beer, chocolate and jewelry.

“These are all things that we are marketing, in connection with the eclipse, so that gives us the opportunity to see a large economic impact,” Evans said.

Both Evans and residents said they are hoping this will be a huge money maker, particularly for small businesses, which were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, like many places across the U.S.

The population of the city dropped slightly, by about 2,000, during the first two years of the pandemic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Rochester and the Finger Lakes region, 37% of households struggled to afford basics in 2021, up from 29% in 2019, according to a report from United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes.

Perhaps no businesses were hit harder than restaurants.

Kelly Metras, co-owner of Salena’s Mexican Restaurant, said when Ross first contacted her in 2021 to help get restaurants on board with preparing for the eclipse, she wasn’t sure if her restaurant would be open by then.

“I told her we didn’t know if we were going to be open next week, much less 2024, and that restaurants specifically wouldn’t be ready to prepare till much closer to the event,” she told ABC News.

Her husband and co-owner, Aaron Metras, said business has slowly been building back up and, while the restaurant is not in danger of closing, the eclipse presents a well-timed boost.

“The pandemic has changed a lot of things; business levels are still not quite the same as they used to be,” Aaron Metras said. “The landscape for business in general, especially for restaurants, has gotten a lot more difficult, since 2020.”

“The influx of tourists and dollars is certainly going to be helpful for all the businesses that have been struggling, and hopefully this will be the start of an upward trajectory that just keeps rising,” he added.

Jason Snyder, owner of Blu Wolf Bistro, feels similarly. He said although his restaurant was able to adapt during the pandemic, it was difficult and he’s still building back his business.

“The pandemic was hard for restaurants, especially small, non-chain restaurants,” he told ABC News. “We’re hoping the eclipse will kind of spring us forward to great sales for the summer … We’re going to use the eclipse and the money and business that brings in to try to get things finally back to normal.”

Snyder said coming out of the pandemic, he and his co-workers were looking for something to look forward to, and the eclipse did the trick.

“When we figured out we were in the path of totality, it was a light at the end of the tunnel for us,” he said. “We see this as the beginning of a great new year, a new beginning for Rochester … we think it’s going to do wonders for our economy.”

John Urlaub, owner of the Rohrbach Brewing Company, said over the weekend he is expecting to a see a 20% to 30% boost in sales compared to what he sees in a normal weekend, which he described as “significant.”

Lindsay Tarnotff, co-owner of Laughing Gull Chocolates, has faced struggles, too. She said the while she felt confident her business would survive the pandemic — and that she and her team pivoted to serve those who were purchasing chocolates online — it doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges.

“All of our costs went up pretty dramatically, and so that impacted and still is impacting the bottom line of our business, and we work hard every day to be successful,” Trarnoff said. “We are a very, very small business, and we are known within our community, but hoping that [the eclipse] kind of raises awareness about us and all of the other small businesses.”

Tarnoff continued, “We want people to support small businesses. Small businesses, women-owned businesses are such a huge part of our economy that people don’t always think about.”

Culmination of years-long preparation

Ross, the chair of the Rochester task force, said when she first started talking to people about preparing for the eclipse, it was several years out, and some people thought she was too eager.

“I mean, I think probably I was a little over the top. So maybe people were saying. ‘Seven years out, really Deb? Six years out, five years out. This a little early, isn’t it?"” she said. “But the fact is pulling all these folks together and working for something that’s going to happen far in the future for three minutes and 38 seconds, that is a kind of wacky proposition. But it was really fun, and everybody just jumped right on board.”

The effort has paid off. The Rohrbach Brewing Company and Laughing Gull Chocolates are both selling eclipse-themed beer and chocolate and are hosting the event at the public market.

Salena’s Restaurant and Blu Wolf Bistro are both hosting eclipse-themed events and have eclipse-themed food and drinks.

“I know a lot of businesses, ourselves included, rolled out the red carpet,” Snyder said. “We want to make it a special day and we hope people leave thinking what a great city Rochester is, and they’ll come back.”

At the Museum & Science Center, more than 500,000 pairs of eclipse glasses were ordered, with more than 30,000 passed out to the Rochester City School District, according to Dan Schneiderman, Eclipse Partnerships Coordinator.

The Museum & Science Center is planning its Roc the Eclipse Festival, which will have several events including speakers, exhibitions, planetarium shows and comedic acts.

“We’re just going all out for the weekend,” Schneiderman said. “We are expecting several thousand people on Saturday and Sunday, but on Monday, April 8, we are expecting about six [thousand] to 80,00 people in total at the RMSC.”

The Museum & Science Center said it expects several thousand people on Saturday and Sunday and between 6,000 and 8,000 people on April 8. Schneiderman said there is a mix of emotions as the museum reaches the culmination of its preparation.

“There are some times when I’m feeling anxious,” he said. “There are times when I’m feeling overwhelmed, just because there’s still so much to do, and then there’s just times of calm. It’s very surreal, overall getting to this point of years and years of working towards this one moment in time.”

Putting Rochester on the map

Evans is hoping eclipse weekend doesn’t just encourage people to come back to visit Rochester but also even convince them to move to the Flower City.

Rochester currently has a population of 209,000, according to 2022 U.S. Census Bureau data. While this makes it the fourth most populous city in New York, it is a decline from the peak of the 20th century when, in 1950, 332,000 lived in the city, data shows.

As companies like Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb left and Rochester changed from a “company town” to a “town of companies”, the number of jobs declined — and so did the population, officials said.

But Evans said he’s met many residents who decided to move to Rochester due to events they attended in the city.

“There are plenty of people that I’ve met over the years … and you ask them later on to say, ‘How did you end up living in Rochester?’ and it was an event that they came to that piqued their interest,” he said. “I think that we want to use this eclipse as a way to showcase Rochester, all that it has to offer, and we want to invite people to come back and we hope that one day they will decide to live here.”

Ross agreed and said she hopes eclipse weekend is “imprinting” the city on people’s minds.

“What we’re going to be doing is kind of imprinting Rochester on the memories of all these people who are here,” she said. “You always remember where you were when you were in the path of totality. So, by giving people all of these different experiences all weekend, we’re kind of saturating them not just with the eclipse, but with Rochester, and we think they’re going to take that away as they leave, but then I think that’s going to help them come back.”

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