The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the coming solar eclipse has brought hope to my struggling Kentucky home town

Hopkinsville, Ky., shown here,  is considered the epicenter of the first total solar eclipse to sweep across the United States in 99 years on Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)
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The most respected businesswoman in Hopkinsville, Ky., Peg Hays is almost always right. Hays, daughter of the town’s first Republican mayor, was right when she said her party would one day outnumber Democrats in Kentucky. She was right when she said that building the town’s Trail of Tears Commemorative Park would make Hopkinsville a hub for Native American tourism. And she was right when she said this, too:

“The young people are coming back,” Hays told me. “Your generation didn’t come back.”

I grew up outside Hopkinsville and in high school had three very close friends. Only one lives there today. Another friend and I live in New York; the fourth is in Louisville.

Hopkinsville is the seat of Christian County, a farm community hit hard by President Bill Clinton’s restrictions on raising its cash crop: tobacco. Somehow the billions of dollars awarded in the federal tobacco settlement, intended to help farmers find alternative crops, missed us. Tobacco demand went down. Stores began to close. Then the local blue-jean factory moved production to Mexico. In an 18-month span, unemployment tripled. So my generation, Generation X, got out of Dodge.

But now Hopkinsville’s mayor, Carter Hendricks, tells me things are looking up. From 2005 to 2015, Hopkinsville’s per-capita income increased by 50 percent to $20,834, poverty has dropped, and there’s a robust new transit system.

Why the turnaround?

Hendricks credits much of it to the moment a decade ago when the town discovered it was about to play host to a once-in-a-lifetime natural event.  This much is certainly true: On Aug. 21, for a full two minutes and 40 seconds — about the longest eclipse duration in the country — Hopkinsville will be the center of the world.

The total solar eclipse will be the first solely visible in the United States. Eighty percent of Americans live within 600 miles of its path spanning Oregon to South Carolina. The point of greatest eclipse: a tobacco farm near Hopkinsville.

Eclipses are known to draw a crowd. In Mexico, a 1991 eclipse brought so many tourists, the Mexican government closed the border. At dead center, Hopkinsville expects 250,000. At least, that’s the number Christian County Judge/Executive Steve Tribble has heard.

Hopkinsville’s solar eclipse marketing and event coordinator, Brooke Jung, has a more conservative figure: 100,000. “We’re asking restaurants to order extra food,” she said, explaining why her projections are lower. “We want to be realistic. We don’t want them buying too much in case fewer people come.” The city has invited out-of-town food trucks; McDonald’s got a refrigeration truck for storing patties out back.”

Considering eclipse-chasers once overwhelmed an international border, the residents of Hopkinsville are taking everything in stride. One local said the biggest change he’ll have to make is remembering to lock his house door: “I usually keep it undone.”

Another man sees my family in Cracker Barrel while I’m home visiting my parents for Christmas and — knowing our farm is at the epicenter — yells “Y’all ready for that eclipse?” across four tables.

Ask Jung who’s most excited, and she points to the digital countdown on her wall showing time left between now and totality. “I can’t wait.” The fact that her job was even created shows everyone knows this is Hopkinsville’s chance to shine.

Ten years ago, Cheryl Cook, executive director of the Hopkinsville Convention and Visitors Bureau, received an email from an eclipse-chaser asking about area hotels. She thought it was a prank. But NASA has mapped eclipse paths through the year 3000, so Aug. 21 was easy to confirm. With that confirmation came something Hopkinsville had been missing since tobacco crashed: hope.

Hendricks said: “There began to become a real attitudinal shift in the leadership of the community that just said, look, enough’s enough. … We’re gonna deal with it, and we started dealing with it. And then that same attitude shifted into, well, wait a second: We’ve been talking about this abandoned rail spur. We tried to convert it into a greenway; we’ve been defeated. Why don’t we try again?” So a former L&N line was converted into green space. Then a water park was built. “There’s been those improvements over the last 10 to 12 years that have actually been occurring to allow this current batch of recent college graduates to feel more pride and the desire to want to come back,” he said.

Sarah Whitaker is one of “the young people” who decided to return to Hopkinsville. “The last two or three years, there’s this momentum,” said Whitaker, who chairs Hopkinsville Young Professionals Engage, an under-45 networking group. “It’s just really taken off just with the things that are opening. All the chains and sort of big box stores have announced that they’re coming. … Hopkinsville is booming like crazy. … I think when one positive thing happens, it’s kind of a domino effect.”

Ask Hays how the dominoes help long-term economic growth, and she said, “Depends on whether you believe in trickle-down economics.” She and her husband own Casey Jones Distillery. She’s honest that economic impact isn’t the town’s main eclipse goal.

“When it’s over, what will have made you think the eclipse was successful?” I asked.

“That we have had visitors who will have had incredible experiences … here in our community [because they] get to participate in this unbelievable celestial event that’s going to occur right here.” Whitaker added: “I think everybody wants to make money. I mean, that’s the big deal, is out of all of that let’s follow the money. But I do think if you can offer that great experience that you’ll capture the economic side of it.”

The mayor agreed: “It’s going to be hard to measure long-term economic impact. … In essence, what we hope will happen is that as people come here … they will have the type of experience where they want to come back at some point in their future. In that regard, we hope that it has a ripple effect on long-term economic impact.”

It’s not just them. The sense of community pride, not just a hope for profits, is echoed all over town. As a native, I’ve never seen local leadership this aligned.

“Everybody’s working together now,” Tribble said. “They really are … better than they ever have, in my opinion. It’s funny, because we’ve got a Republican mayor, Carter Hendricks, and, of course, I’m a Democrat. But I don’t care what somebody is.”

Indeed, if Republicans and Democrats can come together for the good of constituents in today’s political climate, perhaps the eclipse has turned Hopkinsville into some small utopia — an astronomical alignment of celestial bodies foretelling world peace.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” my mother tells me.

If Mom’s right, though, and the eclipse isn’t a chance for peace, then maybe it’s a chance for Hays to finally be wrong. Both my high school friend and I love New York, but as members of Hopkinsville’s lost generation, we long for home. Aug. 21, while eclipse-chasers hope for clear weather, I’ll be hoping for Hopkinsville. Every day that life continues to improve there is one day closer to creating a place Gen Xers can return to one that we would be proud to call home.