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Tiny Idaho town is an eclipse hot spot. Is it ready for 20,000-plus visitors?

How are Weiser, Idaho businesses preparing for the eclipse?

A total solar eclipse lasting 2 minutes and 5 seconds will happen in Weiser, Idaho on August 21, 2017. Local businesses are looking forward to the event with a mix of excitement and trepidation
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A total solar eclipse lasting 2 minutes and 5 seconds will happen in Weiser, Idaho on August 21, 2017. Local businesses are looking forward to the event with a mix of excitement and trepidation

Standing behind the front desk in a cramped office on East Main Street, all Kerry Kendall can do is scratch his graying beard and shake his head. Calm and yet wide-eyed, he isn’t sure if he or any of his neighbors are ready for the coming weeks.

Kendall is the owner of the Colonial Motel in tiny Weiser. The hotel has 24 total rooms; the city itself has just about 5,500 residents. But the rural town located on the edge of the Idaho-Oregon border will soon be ground zero for a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Weiser is one of the top viewing spots in the United States for the Aug. 21 Great American Eclipse. The Gem State is one of 14 states along the path of totality; Weiser is directly on the 60-to-70-mile-wide path, meaning viewers will have an unobstructed view for an estimated two minutes and five seconds that begins just before 11:25 a.m. It is the first total solar eclipse to cross the United States since 1918, and Weiser will be one of the first places in Idaho to see it as the eclipse moves west to east.

It’s estimated that Weiser could have 20,000 visitors for the event — and some people think that number could be significantly higher. Kendall said he has reservations from guests who will be coming from Japan and Denmark. His hotel has been fully booked since July 2016.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s going to be two days for us,” Kendall said. “(And) lots of laundry on the 22nd.”

Many hotels, campsites, homes and even front yards have been rented out for upward of a year. Margaret Jensen lives above the Weiser golf course and rented out three of five bedrooms in her home for a price she didn’t want disclosed. She posted her rooms on Airbnb three months ago. The rooms were snatched up within 24 hours.

“My kids are all out of the house,” said Jensen, who will also be serving her guests breakfast and dinner. “I just knew that space was limited, and it was a good opportunity to meet new people.”

An entire home is still available on Airbnb; it will cost $1,600 for four days. An RV parking spot is going for $100. Lodging in a family room? That might cost you $325 a night. Three days and three nights at a house just outside Weiser on the Snake River? That will be $6,000.

Weiser High School has sold 150 camping spots at $100 each. Nearly 1,000 people are expected.

Kendall said he raised his rates at the Colonial for the eclipse from $50 a night to $90.

The eclipse festivities are expected to provide a much-needed economic boost for a city still reeling from last’s winter devastation. At one point, Weiser had 5 feet of snow, which forced businesses across the city to close down and prevented visitors from coming into town. The town’s lone grocery store, a Ridley’s Family Market, saw its roof collapse from an overload of snow and is now in a temporary location.

“We’re still losing business. We have about 80 percent of sales right now,” said Yvonne Smith, a customer service manager at Ridley’s. “This building is not designed to be a grocery store.”

Local businesses, such as Patrick Nauman’s Weiser Classic Candy, are ecstatic at the business opportunity.

“A couple of days aren’t going to make up for everything that we went through in the winter,” Nauman said. “But it certainly eases the pain a little bit.”

Carlos Ribera owns Legends on Main Pub and Grill. He bares a wide grin when talking about the potential for his restaurant. He said he expects to make a whopping 10,000 jalapeño poppers, the bacon-wrapped delicacy his restaurant is known for.

“The one thing I’ve always been decent about is throwing a big party,” Ribera said. “This is going to be a huge party.”

But it’s not all fun for Weiser and its residents. There are serious concerns enveloping the tiny town, despite months of proactive planning. Is the town truly ready for a once-in-a-lifetime event?

“Does anything really prepare you for this?” police chief Carl Smith asked.

One of the biggest concerns is traffic to and from Weiser on the two-laned U.S. 95 and Oregon 201. Weiser is home to the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest & Festival every year, which attracted 5,000-6,000 people this year for the June event, Smith said. But that number pales in comparison to what the town is expecting for the eclipse.

Fitting tens of thousands of visitors and residents in a 3-square-mile radius is a challenging proposition.

Smith worries there will be too many cars in town and around it for people to get around safely. It might get to a point where visitors get turned away. He is also worried about increased minor crimes, with people renting out homes to strangers and space at a premium overall. There’s also the possibility of cellphone reception congestion — a safety concern as well as a hassle for visitors and residents alike.

“If it gets to be too many people trying to turn into Weiser, at some point we’re just going to have to close those entrances and maybe for local traffic only,” Smith said. “That was my main concern, is the residents of Weiser and their safety.”

Idaho State Police spokesman Tim Marsano said the traffic situation around Idaho during the eclipse is impossible to predict. State Police officials are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

“I think from our perspective, you’ll find that there are no agencies (who) feel … that we have an exact handle of what the traffic situation is going to be like,” Marsano said. “I think it’s impossible to know. I would not speculate.”

Travelers in Eastern Idaho have been warned to prepare for epic traffic. Marsano believes Weiser visitors should plan for the worst, too.

“Don’t anticipate being able to just come up for the day and get a prime viewing spot in the path of totality and expect to be home for dinner,” Marsano said. “I think the same would be for the major arteries … like Highway 95.

“Give yourself plenty of time. Make sure you’re ready for bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

There is also the fear of running out of food and supplies. Ribera’s restaurant, for instance, gets its food supply from Boise. Because of the expected traffic, he is having shipments sent in early. If he runs out, however, he is out of luck.

The same goes for Ridley’s, which can’t hold a full stock of food in its smaller location.

“We have no storage,” Yvonne Smith said. “We have what we have.”

“(We’re adding) as much as we can hold,” co-manager Ben Ruth said.

They also aren’t sure what will be in demand.

“Fiddlers, a lot of the fiddlers come to town, they wait and buy their groceries here since they’re buying local. I don’t see that kind of loyalty coming out of this deal. So, it’s hard to say what they’re going to want, you know. I just hope they bring deodorant,” Smith joked.

There are also potential health hazards. Steven Hale, the chief executive officer at Weiser Memorial Hospital, said his staff is especially worried about heat-related injuries. The hospital can hold about 18 patients, has five emergency room beds and staffs around 105 people.

Hale is also worried about rattlesnakes as people camp in nonresidential areas. The Weiser Memorial Hospital carries just two doses of rattlesnake anti-venom; one person can require up to four doses, Hale said. He said helicopters may be preloaded with anti-venom.

“I get concerned, but I don’t get worked up,” Hale said.

Any potential chaos during the eclipse won’t be for lack of preparation.

Wil Overgaard, the superintendent for the Weiser School District, has been one of the key planners in eclipse preparations. The school district building has hosted biweekly meetings with members of key agencies since February.

“The great thing for us is we don’t have to go anywhere … we just have to be prepared to try and help people,” Overgaard said. “We don’t have to chase it. It’s coming to us.”

Before the last school year let out in Weiser for summer vacation, preparations included teachers sharing information with students on how to enjoy the eclipse. Students, who don’t begin the 2017-18 school year until Aug. 28, were each given a pair of safety glasses. Smith’s police team normally has 12 full-time officers; he is getting an additional two from Emmett, three or four from the city’s reserve program and will likely use 10 citizen officers for the eclipse. Five or so state police officers are coming to town as well.

Ham radio operators will be set up around Washington County to help boost cellular service while shuttle buses will transport people around Weiser, according to Smith. Weiser Memorial will also set up a 20-foot-by-40-foot air-conditioned tent to serve as an initial vetting point for patients.

“Everybody is prepared as much as we can prepare. I think we thought of everything,” Smith said. “(But) I’m sure some stuff is going to come up that we haven’t even thought of.”

The best laid plans are not always enough, however. Overgaard said he has already had to scramble and reorder portable toilets after learning the ones he ordered in the fall were no longer available.

It’s all a work in progress.

“(With the Fiddlers’ Contest & Festival) you have a sense of what it’s going to be like every year,” Overgaard said. “This is going to be so dang different.”

Michael Katz: 208-377-6444, @MichaelLKatz

Weiser Eclipse Fest 2017

Weiser will celebrate the Great American Eclipse at Memorial Park from Thursday, Aug. 17, through Monday, Aug. 21. Live entertainment, a pancake feed, a street dance, an astronomy presentation and many more festivities are planned. Learn more at weisereclipse2017.com.

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