By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
DANVILLE — Happy days are here – again!
Business is good in this small central Kentucky town, set among the rolling bluegrass and home to the prestigious private liberal arts college, Centre College, known for its historic 1921 6-0 victory over Harvard in football.
But on Thursday night, Centre and Danville will bask in the national spotlight. The college is hosting the vice presidential debate between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan. On Saturday, just 14 miles away, close to 25,000 descended on the area for a re-enactment of the Civil War battle at Perryville.
“We’re a small town with big shoulders,” said Jody Lassiter, president and CEO of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership.
When the Commission on Presidential Debate chose Centre for the 2012 vice presidential debate it didn’t surprise or frighten anyone here because Centre hosted the 2000 debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.
“The local governments and local businesses embraced it,” Lassiter said when the news came. “I’ve never heard the first statement of anyone wondering can we get this done.”
A dozen years ago, the direct tourism impact alone of the 2012 debate was nearly $650,000 locally and more than $2.5 million for Kentucky, Lassiter said. That doesn’t include indirect impact or spending on infrastructure improvements.
So far this time, Centre has spent $550,000 and the city another $100,000 getting ready for Thursday’s debate, Lassiter said, so the impact will be far greater.
Lassiter said no one has tried to estimate in advance the economic impact of the 2012 debate, but he expects it to be greater even than the inflationary growth over the past decade.
“It’s a lot bigger event this time and we’re expecting even more people,” he said.
Business is good on Main Street, too.
Marty Sullivan, owner of Thoroughbred Threads located in downtown Danville, said business has been picking up for the past two weeks and he expects business to literally take off the week of the debate. His business is licensed to create and sell official debate t-shirts, sweatshirts, caps and other apparel and it supplies Centre’s demands.
“We think it might add as much as 10 percent to our sales for the entire year,” Sullivan said. “We’re expecting a much bigger crowd than last time.”
It also comes at a time when Centre students are on fall break, normally producing a drop-off in business. There is no such problem this year.
Sullivan also expects a boost in sales of University of Kentucky items to out-of-town visitors who want souvenirs of the school’s NCAA basketball championship earlier this year.
Lassiter said all the local hotels and even those in Harrodsburg, which is 15 miles away, were all sold out. Some media and debate visitors are staying as far away as Lexington.
Down the street from Sullivan’s business, Colin Masters operates the Bluegrass Pizza and Pub, “the best pizzeria in Kentucky,” he said. He’s looking forward to a lot of business from media and other visitors.
Since the debate a dozen years ago, Danville’s voters approved alcohol sales in restaurants and by the package. (Kentucky is a local option state, allowing local jurisdictions to decide whether and under what restrictions to allow alcohol sales.)
That will help business not just for Masters’ pizzeria but for other restaurants, Lassiter said.
Masters expects sales to increase but he’s just as excited by the widespread exposure he says his business will get. Two national media companies are negotiating to rent the restaurant for separate events.
“I don’t expect the debate business will make my entire year, but it’ll be very good,” Masters said. “The national exposure will be tremendous.”
Lassiter said the boost to the economy includes money spent at Centre. The school has made major improvements to facilities since the 2000 debate and has already spent close to half a million dollars getting ready for this one.
That money, like the money spent by the city “sprucing up downtown,” Lassiter said circulates through the local economy with each dollar turning over seven times.
“It’s hard to put a real value on this sort of thing, but it’s enormous,” Lassiter said.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.