Tourism Group comes through
The Madras area had over 100,000 visitors over eclipse weekend. Roughly half of that massive figure were situated at two locations — SolarTown and SolarFest — joint event/campground projects organized and executed by the Jefferson County Tourism Group.
The trio of Madras residents behind the tourism business — J.R. Brooks, Kelly Simmelink and Sandy Forman — were the first and the biggest of private local efforts to recognize the impending eclipse visitors as a business opportunity, starting their effort about two years ago. They early on employed a strong digital media promotional campaign, teamed with experienced event producers and NASA representatives, and were prepared when eclipse chasers across the nation and globe would targeted Madras as the place to experience the 2017 event.
By Sunday evening, Aug. 20, the night before the eclipse, SolarTown, a makeshift campground on a farm field on the Agency Plain's Dogwood Lane, would amass approximately 35,000 people. Meanwhile, the group's showcase event, SolarFest, the four-day fairgrounds extravaganza featuring live music and various vendors, would have another 2,500 or so campers. On Saturday, Aug. 19, the daypass visitors to SolarFest grew the event to 20,000 at its peak, and on Sunday, when a large push of visitors reached town, attendance at SolarFest surged to 25,000, said Simmelink, who manned the fairgrounds event for the group.
In total, SolarTown had 5,400 filled campsites and SolarFest had 450 filled campsites. Both camping venues were sold out.
RV camping sites were sold at $300 for five days and tent sites for $150 for five days. Various day passes for parking, day passes for SolarFest and shuttle passes for bus rides around the community, were also sold.
While revenues were well over $1 million, the expenses were also substantial. Simmelink noted that the cost of the porta-potty rental alone was more than $100,000 (250 were rented); medical and security costs were more than $100,000, entertainment at SolarFest approached $90,000.
Another major expenditure was the locations. The Tourism Group rented the fairgrounds space for the SolarFest and private farmland for SolarTown. They also had many contractual arrangements for wide variety of service providers and various other expenses.
While they worked closely with public entities, the Tourism Group is a private business and is not obligated to release financial information. But Simmelink said that belief that the trio made a huge amount of money is not the case.
"It wasn't a giant windfall, not even like we thought it might be," said Simmelink. "We were like a lot of the rest of the town, we prepared for the worse" — which was a large influx of people, all needing an assortment of supplies and goods, all eager to spend money, that eventually did not materialize to the expected degree.
The Tourism Group made it a priority to involve youths and nonprofit programs, offering them substantial fundraising possibilities through helping and volunteering. The Madras High School football team was particularly involved in set-up and other efforts; the MHS softball program, FFA and 4-H programs were also among those that contributed and were able to raise funds, noted Simmelink. The local Rotary was also involved.
"That's one thing we experienced — a volunteer shortage. Volunteers were scared away," said Simmelink.
The gregarious Simmelink was a busy man at the SolarFest, focusing his efforts on making people feel welcome and happy.
Probably the biggest "incident" occurred on the first day of the event, Thursday, when a first-time RV driver mangled the welcome sign to the fairgrounds. But Simmelink said he told the shaken man to get into his golf cart and that he'd take him to the fairgrounds office, where insurance information could be provided so that the visitor could get on with enjoying the festival.
Simmelink described the crowd at SolarFest as "geniunely sweet, well-mannered people. I made friends with hundreds of people; people all over the world invited me to come visit. People liked our Madras hospitality, and I heard such great comments."
A giant map of the world was set up on the festival grounds and people were asked to put push-pins into the countries they were from. Well over 40 countries were represented.
The entertainment at SolarFest, predominantly cover bands, was very well received, said Simmelink. Sunday's performance of regional favorite country band Countryfied was the entertainment highlight among the crowd, he thought.
The most popular element of SolarFest may have been the NASA tent, where NASA scientists Dean Pesnell and Michael Kirk presented information. Festival-goers stood in long lines waiting for their chance to view the displays and visit with the scientists.
Like many retailers in the Madras area, the tourism group overshot projections on how much apparel and souvenirs they would sell. They were left with "tons of stuff," said Simmelink.
They also purchased many tents and sleeping bags, thinking that visitors would be in need of them. They were left holding many of them.
"We donated 150 sleeping bags to Goodwill," said Simmelink, who said they may hold a giant community yard sale in the near future.
While there were 20 or more private campgrounds spread about the Madras area in various farmfields or patches of mowed wild grass, the epicenter of local eclipse camping was SolarTown. By itself, the campground could have been the second largest city in Central Oregon.
There was no entertainment. Food, drink, souvenirs and various necessities were available for purchase, but in general, it was as advertised: a nice flat place to camp and wait for, then watch, the eclipse very near the center of totality.
Several SolarTown campers walked the couple miles into town, or across U.S. Highway 26 for food and drink at the New Basin Distillery.
The Tourism Group were tasked by the City of Madras to arrange shuttle buses in and around the community, and while there was usage, there wasn't an abundance of riders, and many of the rides that did take place were between SolarTown and SolarFest. Simmelink noted that he heard complaints from in-town Madras businesses that more visitors were not brought in.
"We tried to get people to ride," he said.
What they learned, like many Madras merchants, was that many of the eclipse visitors that came in campers and tents came prepared and self-contained.
Traffic backups to get into SolarTown caused some major waits and testy moments along North Adams Drive, especially on Thursday, when the site opened, and on Saturday night/Sunday morning, when the Sunday day-use crush began much earlier than expected.
But considering more than 30,000 people were camping together in essentially tight quarters in a farm field, Simmelink felt the SolarTown element of the tourism group's effort went relatively smoothly. He noted that "there were no major injuries for onsite medical staff to address, and no major law enforcement arrests" at either venue.
The medical staff on site likely saved a life. A visitor suffered a heart-attack at SolarTown, was treated, then air-lifted to Bend.
"Our emergency service plan with our medics and security went off without a hitch," said Brooks. "I would guess that we had the safest and most organized event per capita than any other place in the country."
What's next for group?
When they formed, the Tourism Group said that the eclipse project wasn't a one-shot deal. They wanted to bring additional events to the Madras area. While exhausted after the eclipse, Simmelink said the ordeal only emboldened them to the idea that Madras can draw, and host, visitors — if for the right event.
"You'll see us do something," said Simmelink. "Maybe next year. We learned a lot."
But even two weeks after the moon blocked the sun, the Tourism Group is still busy on their unforgettable two-pronged event of SolarTown and SolarFest.
"We know we still have plenty of work ahead of us to wrap this thing up and our work is not done yet," said Brooks.