Editor's Note: Presidential debate shines a spotlight on Boca Raton
By Thomas R. Collins
Some two years ago, officials with Lynn University got in touch with the city of Boca Raton and shared some exciting news: They were applying to host a presidential debate in 2012.
Is that something, they asked, that the city would support?
“The city council said yes, that would be a cool thing,” Assistant City Manager Michael Woika said recently.
The city didn’t consider the expenses immediately, but — now that Lynn actually is hosting the last debate on Oct. 22 — the city figures that paying for security provided by the city’s Fire and Police departments will cost $250,000. The city thought that state money was going to be set aside to help with the local costs, but that didn’t happen. Essentially, the response from the state was, “Glad you could host, but we don’t have any money,” Woika said.
Lynn — a 2,100-student liberal-arts school — is spending $5 million — with $150,000 in Palm Beach County tourism tax dollars to help. They’re also getting contributions from small businesses, which can give $255 to be recognized as official debate businesses.
Hosting a presidential debate can be seen as a civic privilege, but it does come at a big price. And what are the actual, concrete benefits?
The main thing can be summed up in one word, Lynn and economic development officials say: exposure.
A media horde to end all media hordes — with 2,000 to 3,000 credentialed members of the press — will descend on the Boca Raton area, with many staying for days, they say.
Joshua Glanzer, the public relations director at Lynn, said the press coverage of Lynn and the surrounding area alone will amount to a huge score.
“That alone is probably going to approach our investment of $5 million because your name is going to be mentioned globally for weeks leading up to the debate,” he said, walking outside the administrative building, where a video screen counts down the seconds to the debate and red, white and blue debate logos hang on streetlight poles. That’s an estimate derived using “P.R. equivalency value” — what you would have paid for those 30 seconds of TV airtime or that quarter-page newspaper article had you actually bought advertising.
That should translate into higher application numbers and bigger enrollment, Glanzer said.
Business development officials also are expecting a bump.
“Hopefully the media that come in here are going to cover the different stories to promote our community,” said Troy McLellan, president of the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce and chair of the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Boca Raton already has a well-renowned name. Hopefully this media coverage puts it in a different light. And for Lynn, it puts Lynn on the map.”
“In my mind,” he added, “although you can’t really quantify it before the event, there’s nothing but upside.”
The city is hoping to “put our best foot forward with our visitors,” Woika said. A series of lectures, movies, concerts — culminating with a debate “watch party” at the Mizner Amphitheatre — is going on, mostly sponsored by civic and cultural groups, Woika said.
At Lynn, officials hastened the completion of a makeover of its main entryway, with a new traffic light and a change in the alignment of the roadway. That’s not part of the $5 million, since it was planned anyway — but without the debate, “you never know” when it might have been done, Glanzer said.
Eighty courses have had debate-related coursework written into them, with some courses created specifically to take advantage of the immediacy of the political spectacle, Glanzer said.
In the end, the debates probably benefit the hosting university far more than the surrounding community.
Ole Miss saw a bump, maybe
In Oxford, Miss., where the University of Mississippi — or Ole Miss — hosted the first presidential debate of 2008, Mayor George “Pat” Patterson originally wanted to refer to the university any questions about long-term benefits — because for the town itself, there haven’t been any, as far as he can tell, he said.
“It’s expensive, it’s not cheap — I’d hate to add up the cost in man-hours” and other expenses, said Patterson, who was mayor at the time of the debate.
Still, it was a thrill and there are no regrets, he said.
“I’m glad we did it, and I’m also glad it’s over with,” he said.
At Ole Miss, the number of applications and enrollment figures have continued to climb after the debate, though they were also climbing before the debate, said Andy Mullins, the chief of staff to the chancellor who was the 2008 debate’s point person.
He said he thinks enrollment got a bump due to the debate, “but you can’t prove that.”
The website, though, got 40,000 hits in the week after the debate, many from outside the immediate area. The university is all but certain that enrollment from out-of-state students increased due to the debate exposure, but they didn’t consider it worth it to scientifically study that, Mullins said.
They do estimate, using that “P.R. equivalency” method, that they got $36 million worth of media coverage, he said.
What is not in doubt is that the debate provided a great educational tool and a great experience to the students, he said. Some of them got jobs with major networks after college from contacts made with the media during the debate.
“There’s no way to calculate exactly what it meant with us,” Mullins said. “But if we didn’t do anything but just check with the students on what they felt about it, we would have gotten an A-plus. Because they just loved it.”