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‘Even better in the dark’: Erie is ready for its close-up during the April 8 solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse is seen on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 above Jefferson City, Missouri. (Credit: NASA/Rami Daud)

Bobby Cherry, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
April 4, 2024

ERIE — Late last year, Erie found itself briefly thrust into the national political spotlight, when NBC declared it was one of its “Decider” counties, a swing district in a must-win swing state that would prove crucial to the outcome of 2024’s presidential race. Its proximity to Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo puts Erie in a unique position for candidates trying to squeeze in multiple campaign stops — and it’s not far from the swing state of Michigan, either. 

“Of course, Erie is going to be treated like the center of the political universe because it was in 2020, and we didn’t know that it should have been in 2016,” said Jeffrey Bloodworth, professor of political history at Gannon University in Erie. “We shall see by the second week in November of 2024 whether Erie deserves that treatment — depending on the results. I suspect Pennsylvania is going to be a tipping point state and Erie County is the bellwether of how Democrats are doing outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. If Republicans win Erie County, it’s going to be a good night for Donald Trump.”

Former President Donald Trump made one of his earliest 2024 campaign stops in Erie last summer. After Barack Obama won Erie County by 16 points in 2012, Trump won there in 2016 by two points. Biden took Erie County by just one point in 2020, and turned Pennsylvania blue again. Without Erie, it’s hard for any candidate to win statewide in Pennsylvania.

But next week in Erie, politics will be overshadowed —figuratively and literally — by the celestial event of the decade, as the city in the northwest corner of the state finds itself in the path of totality of a solar eclipse.

Tony DiPasqua hopes the thousands of visitors expected to descend upon Erie for the April 8 total solar eclipse think the city is even better in the dark.

“Erie is already great, and it’s even better with the eclipse happening,” said the Erie native who runs Lake Erie Variety, a shop that specializes in merchandise for the region. “This eclipse isn’t just about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see something incredible, it’s an opportunity to bring families back to celebrate Erie and celebrate our community.”

Presque Isle State Park is a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that arches into Lake Erie. As Pennsylvania's only "seashore," Presque Isle offers its visitors a beautiful coastline and many recreational activities, including swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, bicycling and in-line skating. A National Natural Landmark, Presque Isle is a favorite spot for migrating birds.
 Presque Isle State Park in Erie (Photo via Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources)

As a swathe of the nation from Texas to Maine prepares for the rare celestial spectacle, Erie is bracing for an unexpected economic boon as some 200,000 people are expected to flock there to witness the event.

With Erie in the coveted path of totality, eclipse onlookers there will witness nearly four minutes of total darkness in the afternoon as the moon passes between the sun and Earth. That is why officials anticipate possibly more than doubling the city’s population of roughly 95,000 people. (The county’s population is roughly 268,000.) 

Many visitors are expected to begin making their way to Erie on Friday.

That’s good news for Erie businesses, where the third largest industry in the Rust Belt city is tourism, which annually generates more than $1.2 billion in visitor spending and more than 15,000 jobs, according to VisitErie, the region’s tourism promotion bureau.

Erie area hotels began filling up last April for the upcoming weekend. As of late March, less than 80 of the county’s 4,500 rooms remained available, according to Chris Temple, the communications director for VisitErie.

Rooms that did remain were going for two or three times what a typical April weekend would cost.

“This has the potential to be the largest tourism event Erie’s ever seen in recent memory,” Temple said.

To see what the eclipse will look like in your area on April 8, use this handy website, sponsored by a NASA grant, and enter your ZIP code. Most of Pennsylvania should see a near-total eclipse.

VisitErie anticipates the economic impact of the eclipse to be anywhere from $13 million to $50 million. The organization estimates that, on average, each visitor would spend $200 to $500 on lodging, food, beverage, transportation and retail. The group expects the impact to include indirect spending by local businesses and workers who stand to benefit from the increase in activity.

Small businesses, such as DiPasqua’s Lake Erie Variety store, stand to benefit as visitors are likely to want keepsake items. DiPasqua has been using his “even better in the dark” theme on shirts, hoodies, stickers, tumblers and even a charcuterie board.

His shop began selling eclipse-themed merchandise Aug. 14 — a nod to the region’s 814 area code — and said sales have been, pardon the pun, out of this world.

“We saw the opportunity months in advance because we knew how significant this opportunity would be — not just for members of our community but for visitors who are coming to Erie,” he said.

DiPasqua plans to sell any remaining merchandise at an Erie public park, where one of more than 50 eclipse viewing parties around the region is planned. He said an uptick in sales now leads right into the summer months, which are peak tourist season in Erie thanks in part to Presque Isle, where more than 4 million annual visitors help to make the peninsula and its lakeshore beaches the most-visited state park in Pennsylvania.

But those visitors tend to be repeat tourists, coming back annually. The eclipse is expected to bring throngs of first-time visitors to Erie — something VisitErie hopes to capitalize on through post-eclipse marketing efforts, Temple said.

“We really want to use this opportunity to put our best foot forward,” Temple said. “We want these visitors to have a great time and come back again — for the beaches in the summer or fall foliage in Lake Erie Wine Country. We want to leave a good, long-lasting impression.”

What about the weather and traffic?

While Erie is known for sometimes brutal winters thanks to its position along its namesake lake, springtime in Erie is a crapshoot.

“It makes us very anxious because it’s all at the whim of Mother Nature,” said Temple, with VisitErie. “The likelihood of clear skies in April is a little less than we would like.”

Historical data compiled by the National Weather Service shows the average high temperature for April 8 at Erie International Airport, where weather data is recorded, is 54 degrees. The average low temperature is 35 degrees.

The data shows that it’s rained nearly half of the time since 1926.

 This map show the path of a total solar eclipse across the United States next week. Areas outside of the path of totality will still see most of the sun obscured. (NASA)

Freddie Zeigler, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Cleveland, which services Erie County, stressed that the sky doesn’t have to be crystal clear to see the eclipse.

“If you can still see the sun, you can still see the eclipse. It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfectly clear,” Zeigler said. “If it’s a cloudy day, it’s going to be extremely dark at the time of the total eclipse.”

As the weekend nears, VisitErie leaders expect people to begin shoring up their plans and determining if Erie will become their viewing location. “I’m praying that our weather is a good day and that Mother Nature smiles on us,” Temple said.

Ed Orzehowski, the assistant district traffic engineer for PennDOT District 1, said officials will work to mitigate traffic congestion and flow across.

Areas of traffic concern include Peninsula Drive in Millcreek Township, which is the only road into and out of Presque Isle, and the Bayfront Parkway in Erie, which sits along Presque Isle Bay and offers miles of scenic shoreline, hotels and other amenities.

“Our main concern is keeping people safe,” Orzehowski said.

PennDOT officials encourage people to use to access traffic information for their trip.

After the April 8 total solar eclipse, the next total solar eclipse that can be seen from the contiguous United States will occur on Aug. 23, 2044. The last total solar eclipse visible from within the United States was on Aug. 21, 2017. The path of totality stretched from Oregon to South Carolina. The last total solar eclipse that passed up the East Coast was March 7, 1970.

And the next time Erie is in the path of totality again won’t be until 2144.

But people such as DiPasqua hope visitors return more frequently.

“I hope people see the community for what it is,” he said. “This isn’t just an opportunity to see an eclipse, this is an opportunity for Erie to put ourselves on the map and recruit tourists to come back at the best time of year. I’m hopeful people will come in and see the community for what we offer and their interest be piqued and say, ‘Wow, I want to come back to see a sunset on Presque Isle.’ I just hope people explore the community and are open to our region and ultimately come back again.”

Election eclipses Erie

After Monday, when the tourists have left and the spectacle of the eclipse subsides, the spotlight on Erie will return to the election.

But Bloodworth said he sees political fatigue setting in as the election nears, noting that “part of that is just Trump fatigue.”

“I drive around Pennsylvania. I don’t see the Trump paraphernalia as I did in the past. Yard signs don’t vote, I know that. But the Trump (signage) is telling. In 2016, if you left the city — and even in the city of Erie, it was everywhere,” he said.

He recalled Trump’s campaign visit to Erie last summer, with a sparse crowd inside the city’s civic arena. “The atmosphere outside was nothing like it had been in the past. And inside, it was sparsely populated. People were bored. People were walking out.”

That event was nothing like the “carnival atmosphere” that has become a staple at Trump rallies, Bloodworth said.

“People who are real Trump loyalists, it’s a carnival in a good way for them. They go and they see their friends, and Trump is just part of a larger atmosphere of fellowship and fun,” he said. “For people who don’t like Trump, they think that’s weird. But for people who do like Trump, they think it’s part of their social network.”

Polling data on Trump is not always accurate in Pennsylvania or Michigan, with big white working-class numbers, Bloodworth said.

“That’s where pollsters have difficulty measuring Trump’s intensity. Then you have to look at something like a rally. I’m going to be interested when Trump comes to Erie, what’s that rally going to like? Is it going to look like 2020?”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.