Presidential debate organizers hear pitch

Officials try to convince touring committee members to choose Lawrence for national event

A cadre of Kansas University, city and state leaders Monday told presidential debate organizers that Lawrence would be a perfect place to stage a 2004 debate.

Two members of the Commission on Presidential Debates toured the city Monday and heard a pitch from the group trying to lure a debate to town.

“All in all, I think it’s a great day,” said Clenece Hills, a member of the Lawrence Presidential Debate Committee. “Now it’s just wait and see.”

The two Commission on Presidential Debates members — Rory Davies and Matt Dippell — spent most of the day meeting with local officials and touring the Lied Center, the proposed debate site, and KU’s Horejsi Family Athletics Center, the proposed media workroom.

Media weren’t allowed to attend Monday’s tour or presentations, in part because of security concerns. Davies and Dippell declined to discuss their visit.

But Lawrence residents involved in the tour said they received positive response from the two, who are among the officials touring all 14 sites that applied to serve as host for the debates.

“I think it certainly went well in terms of Lawrence putting its best foot forward,” said Susan Henderson, marketing manager for the Convention and Visitors Bureau and a local committee member. “But it’s hard to know … because you don’t know what else they’ve seen.”

Hills said the Commission on Presidential Debates members indicated they’d be back for at least a second visit to Lawrence. They’re touring locations until late October or early November, when sites will be chosen for the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

Hills said Dippel and Davies seemed pleased with the debate facilities.

“They just fell in love with the Lied Center,” she said. “They were pleased with it as a beautiful building, but also that it has many of the accouterments they were looking for.”

Kansas University is one of 14 sites applying to be host to a 2004 presidential debate.The other sites: Arizona State University in Tempe; Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.; Case Western Reserve and Cleveland, Ohio; Centre College in Danville, Ky.; Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga.; Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau; National Public Radio; Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.; the University of Miami in Miami, Fla.; the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the city of Charlotte, N.C.; the University of South Carolina in Columbia; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Those include requirements for stage space, climate control and dressing rooms, among other things.

However, they had concerns that the Horejsi Family Athletics Center would not be large enough for the media expected to attend. The debate commission initially told applicants they needed space for up to 1,500 members of the media, but they now expect about 2,000.

Having media so far from the debate site also could be a problem. One concern is safety, because authorities would need to secure a perimeter for those involved. Logistics are also an issue, because cable would have to be laid between the two locations.

“There was some concern whether the space at the athletics department would be sufficient,” Hills said.

She said officials could pitch a large, climate-controlled tent near the Lied Center to handle the media. According to Hills, Davies said she thought such a scenario “was very doable.”

As a college town applying for the debate, Lawrence has history on its side. Eleven of the 14 debates since 1988 have been at universities.

But that’s also an advantage for other sites applying for 2004. Eleven of the 14 are university towns.

Henderson said hosting the debate would have short-term and long-term benefits for the community.

“It’s a huge deal,” she said. “I don’t know about the (financial effect) numbers, but the exposure would be immeasurable. Not only would it be big in terms of the number of people that it would bring to the community, but it would be big in terms of exposure on a national scale.”