Ky. Town, college seeking a boost from VP debate

BRUCE SCHREINER, Associated Press

DANVILLE, Ky. -- Politicians aren't the only ones looking for a debate-related boost when Joe Biden and Paul Ryan go toe-to-toe in Kentucky.

In one way or another, the whole town of Danville is hoping to benefit from the vice presidential debate on Thursday.

Streets have been repaved, flowers planted and new signs erected around this picturesque central Kentucky town of about 16,000. One bar is prepping cocktails named for Ryan and Biden while stores have stocked up on politically inspired merchandise, seeking to cash in on throngs of campaign workers, media and political junkies. Small but ambitious Centre College, the site for the upcoming debate, also hopes to raise its name recognition and energize fundraising.

"I think the whole town has that kind of spirit, let's make it as nice as we can," said Mary Robin Spoonamore, who owns a bar and liquor store a block off Main Street.

She put in new lighting and a new bar, and has stocked up on high-end bourbons to give visitors a taste of a Kentucky specialty. Her cocktail list this week includes "Biden's Tongue" and "Ryan's Budget."

Locals have dubbed the event the "Thrill in the `Ville II," a nod to the town's role hosting another vice presidential debate in 2000.

The legal flow of alcohol is probably the biggest change in Danville since the 2000 debate between vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Back then, alcohol sales were banned in the town.

On a recent day, arborist Amra Boanerges was busy trimming downtown trees. Visitors will feel welcome, he said, in a place where residents wave and honk their car horns at friends and acquaintances.

"It's like modern-day Mayberry," he said.

Nearby, a crew painted a new crosswalk on the pavement between the debate site and media center. Amid the manicured lawns and gardens on campus was one stark reminder of the debate's security implications: concrete barriers were aligned along portions of campus.

Volunteers have also been pitching in behind the scenes. Hundreds gathered in the media center to text, make calls and surf the Internet, testing the digital network's capacity for reporters preparing to cover debate night.

Businesses are sporting red, white and blue bunting. Fire hydrants are decked in the same patriotic colors. Debate flags flutter along the tree-lined downtown.

Family-owned Melton's Great American Deli is hoping for a windfall as it caters debate-related events and provides hot dogs and snacks for a debate festival on Centre's campus.

"It'll take a lot of stress off paying the bills," said Nathan Schepman, son-in-law of the deli's owners.

Local motels are cashing in.

Comfort Suites has been booked solid for debate week for months, said front desk manager Patsy Cook. Some people will stay as far away as Lexington, about 40 miles north.

Politically inspired merchandise adorns some shop windows. At Maple Tree Gallery, there are scarves, tea towels, porcelain plates and stuffed donkeys and elephants. Gallery co-owner Julie Nelson said she spent hundreds of dollars stocking up. It's strictly bipartisan.

"We try to keep our political thoughts till after 5:30 when we close," she said. "We don't want to offend anyone."

Centre's campus has changed since the 2000 debate. Stately brick classroom buildings have been renovated and expanded. New residence halls have been built and new athletic fields opened.

School officials say favorable publicity from the 2000 debate was key to the construction boom.

Centre raised nearly $170 million in a fundraising campaign that was planned well before the first debate but didn't start until 2003. Applications from would-be students rose about 20 percent in the year after the 2000 debate, and out-of-state applications have steadily increased since.

"Hosting the 2000 debate ushered in a decade of unprecedented progress in the life of the college," said Richard Trollinger, a Centre vice president and a key organizer as the school's debate co-chairman.

The connection to national politics is important for the profile of the 1,340-student school, which lacks big-time athletics or research. Centre was chosen by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Centre ranked 52nd nationally among liberal arts colleges in the latest ratings from U.S. News & World Report, but it ranked fifth in best undergraduate teaching and alumni giving.

Now the school is planning an even more ambitious round of fundraising. The campaign will likely begin next year and end in 2018, some three weeks before the school celebrates the 200th anniversary of its founding, Trollinger said.

"It's our way of saying that Centre College is ready to play on the national stage," he said.

At Melton's deli, where Schepman was serving up sandwiches during a recent lunch rush in their converted gas station, the hope is that debate-related business will guarantee a positive balance sheet.

"We won't be going into 2013, hopefully, in the hole," Schepman said.