Eleven years after the nation’s collective attention was drawn to Centre College for a vice-presidential debate, the school learned Monday it has snagged the coveted hosting gig a second time.
“I’m here to tell you the debate is in the bag,” Centre President John Roush told a large group of pumped up students, faculty and local leaders gathered Monday evening in the lobby of Norton Center for the Arts for an impromptu pep rally a few feet from where the debate will take place.
The college submitted a letter in March expressing interest in hosting the event to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization that organizes and selects the sites. Schools apply for one of four general election debates, with the commission choosing three for presidential debates and one for a vice-presidential debate.
Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, said Centre was one of 12 colleges that completed the entire application process and was in the running prior to Monday. More than 40 institutions inquired about the possibility, but Brown said Centre's combination of the setting and the school's history running the event made an impression.
“Centre has the first-rate facilities necessary, but they also have a team in place that is very professional,” Brown said. “They truly understand the scope of what is required to host a debate like this.”
Monday, the commission announced the three presidential debates will take place at the University of Denver in Colorado, Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. and Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., with Washington University in St. Louis acting as a backup.
“Naturally, we are disappointed that we were not selected,” EKU President Doug Whitlock said in a press release.
“But it was an honor to have been considered, and we certainly wish each of the successful campuses the best as they prepare to host debates next year. I am especially pleased for our friends at Centre College.”
Roush’s own experience with staging debates between candidates for the country’s top offices predates his time at Centre. He worked on staging the debate between Bill Clinton and incumbent George H.W. Bush before the 1994 election when he was vice president for planning and assistant to the president of the University of Richmond.
The team that pulled off the 2000 debate at Centre is largely intact, including Vice Chairman of College Relations Richard Trollinger, who has again been heavily involved in the effort to secure the event.
“Over the years, we have really hoped for the chance to do this again,” Trollinger said. “The last time, every day we were climbing the learning curve. I’m looking forward to doing this with the knowledge we have now.”
With throngs of political staff and media set to descend on Danville, work must get under way soon on planning for the influx of thousands of people who will be on and around the campus.
Although the commission limits the number of people allowed inside the Norton Center to 700, it also requires space for 3,000 media members, a group likely to look vastly different than in 2000, when many of the current electronic media sources either didn’t exist or were in their beginning stages.
Clarence Wyatt, a Centre history professor and special assistant to the president, said having an incumbent in the race in 2012, unlike 2000, means the White House press corps also will come to town.
Trollinger noted several of the multi-million dollar capital improvements made at Centre since the last debate as features that enticed the commission to come back to the college and said some of them will play an important role in staging what amounts to a political spectacle.
Sutcliffe Hall, where most of the media organizations will be located, was not air-conditioned and was not suited to high tech connectivity required by many media outlets prior to recent renovations, and the new Campus Center dining facility was completed in 2009.
Brown said preparations for security and other accommodations already are under way and meetings with organizers at Centre will be held soon in Washington, D.C., to plan for how to ensure the debate has the maximum impact. Although the number of people who will be inside the hall will be limited, those involved say steps will be taken to make sure the effect of the event is far reaching.
"It's important for the location to be ready for the debate, but it is also critical to involve the community and look at education and additions to curriculums," Brown said. "Debates are historic events, and we pay particular attention to making sure it is an event that is inclusive and touches as many people as possible."
Many of the Centre students who packed the entrance to the Norton Center on Monday were in elementary school when the last debate came to town. The event has remained a point of pride for the college, though, and a generation of students who have only heard stories about the last time the world was watching Danville were electrified by Monday's news.
Roush said both Centre students and students throughout the area will be able to witness the political process firsthand and be affected by the event in a meaningful way. In 2000, Centre students also got the chance to volunteer in a number of ways.
Dennis Barrett, a first-year student from Boston, said one of the things that intrigued him about Centre during a visit was a conversation he had with the head of the College Democrats about the 2000 debate and the possibility of the event returning next year. Already a political watcher, Barrett said the announcement has him excited about the possibility of meeting the candidates and the other opportunities the debate will offer students.
“It is going to provide an experience you won't get anywhere else, and it is something I think all of us will come together for," Barrett said.
Local leaders were also delighted at the news. Those gathered for the rally on Monday were eager to capitalize on another shot at marketing what the county and city have to offer in a way they never could otherwise.
“This can be a springboard for a lot of big things for us,” said Boyle Judge-Executive Harold McKinney. “You have a lot of people watching you. People also see you can bring in not one, but two vice-presidential debates and successfully carry that off. We think we can use that energy to bring in jobs and investment in our county.”