Maine businesses hopeful solar eclipse will bring long-term benefits

Matthew Polstein estimated Monday that the solar eclipse, which drew a rush of visitors to the Katahdin region and other communities along the path of totality, brought more than $150,000 to his business.

That’s more than double the roughly $60,000 the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket made last April and a needed boost after a lackluster snowmobile season with little snow, said Polstein, the center’s founder and chief executive officer.

“People here were blown away by the weather and views of Katahdin,” he said. “We hoped the event would be a catalyst for future visitation, and people are asking when they can climb the mountain and whether they can book a cabin for the summer.”

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
MID-AFTERNOON DARKNESS — An audience of eclipse watchers gathered on the front lawn at Foxcroft Academy to watch as the moon moved in front of the sun prior to the total solar eclipse at about 3:31 p.m. on Monday. The sun was blocked for 1 minute, 20 seconds in Dover-Foxcroft as the crowd cheered the sight, felt the temperature drop, and could hear fireworks being set off elsewhere in town.

In the days leading up to the eclipse, Maine businesses counted on a flurry of visitors to bring an unprecedented boost to the state, particularly its small towns and rural areas whose economies generally struggle during this part of the year. Many saw a chance to “open people’s eyes and bring them back,” Polstein said. 

The eclipse may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it has the potential to bring long-term benefits to the state, business owners said. While it’s unknown if it will lead to future visits, they were surprised and pleased with the revenue from Sunday and Monday after a few days of poor weather and noted they sold out of eclipse-themed merchandise.

Event planners estimated the eclipse brought 20,000 people to Houlton in Aroostook County, the last stop in the United States along the path of totality. In Millinocket, roughly 500 people settled in to watch the eclipse from Veterans Memorial Park, though crowds milled about other parts of town and some residents gazed from their yards.

Heather Johnson, Maine’s economic and community development commissioner, pointed out that the eclipse drew visitors to more rural, inland communities rather than ones on the coast that attract tourists in the summer season. The event was a major opportunity for businesses in those areas, she said. 

Photo courtesy of Addie Hutchinson
TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE — The moon is in front of the sun for a total solar eclipse in the sky over Baxter State Park shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Monday. The celestial event was first of its kind in Maine since July 20, 1963, with the next to take place in 55 years in the year 2079.

People began reserving the New England Outdoor Center’s cabins up to four years ago, and everything was booked a year ago, Polstein said. Guests were from around Maine and other states including Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia.

The center offered $175 eclipse passes that included food and entertainment at River Drivers Restaurant and its Twin Pines property on Millinocket Lake, along with Knife Edge Brewing. A $250 pass also included access to the Ktaadn Resorts Event Center, which offered a raw oyster bar and a champagne toast during the eclipse. The center sold more than 650 tickets. 

“This burst of business won’t make up the whole month of March, but it’s helpful to my business and the community at large,” he said.

Just after noon Monday in Houlton, the County Co-Op & Farm Store was packed with customers enjoying baked goods inside the cafe or grabbing to-go snacks. Regular co-op volunteers Mack Randolph and Nancy West said that the number of customers far surpassed their expectations, with three to four times more orders than typical.

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
PATH OF TOTALITY — Dover-Foxcroft was on the southern edge of the path of totality for the solar eclipse on Monday afternoon, with darkness temporarily setting over the Foxcroft Academy campus just after 3:30 p.m. The school was one of several in the region to have no classes or an early release on April 8.

The co-op makes between $3,000 and $4,000 at its cafe during a good week, said Jane Torres, Houlton Chamber of Commerce’s executive director. She predicted the eclipse would bring in closer to $25,000 to the co-op in the days leading up to the eclipse and on the big day.

Down the road on Market Square, Katie Sloat of Serendipitous Dragonfly, a specialty toy and game store, said she had shoppers from as far as Seattle and San Diego. 

As the afternoon inched closer toward the eclipse, dozens lined up outside the Maine Visitor Information Center in Houlton. Many found that the center had sold out of eclipse-themed T-shirts, magnets and stickers by mid-morning, said Cecilia Rhoda, head of the Houlton Gateway Ambassadors initiative.

In Shirley, south of Greenville in Piscataquis County, Northeast Whitewater opened early for the season to “gain a little cash flow and traction,” owner Jeremy Hargreaves said. While it was too soon to offer moose tours and rafting, the business opened its cafe on Saturday and hoped those driving by would stop for a coffee or panini. 

Hargreaves and his team also offered 100 passes to a private, guided eclipse viewing, which went for $100 each. The event included a history of eclipses from a registered Maine guide, eclipse glasses, a “toast to totality” and a pig roast. It was also a chance to showcase offerings so people will want to return for an experience they won’t find anywhere else, Hargreaves said.

“The eclipse allowed me to roll out the carpet earlier,” he said. “I’m probably not going to make a lot of money on the event, but it will be a little profitable. And it’s going to get me moving earlier, which can open up opportunities.”

Anita Mueller wasn’t sure what the eclipse would bring to Millinocket, but the day exceeded her expectations, she said. The owner of Moose Prints Gallery and Gifts sold out of eclipse coasters and earrings, though she had some memory boxes remaining around 4:15 p.m.

Mueller couldn’t recall a time when she has ever seen so many people in her town. An annual marathon in December brings crowds, but not this large, she said.

“It was steady all weekend, but today was insane,” she said.

Bangor Daily News writer Melissa Lizotte contributed to this story.

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