The first presidential debate is tomorrow at the University of Denver. It's the first time ever that it will be held in the Rocky Mountain region. With more than 3-thousand members of the media expected from all over the world, the debate will thrust DU, Denver, and Colorado onto the international stage. And that has officials working hard to make sure it comes off without a hitch. Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus reports.
Reporter Ben Markus: Magness Arena at DU is usually where the basketball and hockey teams face off against opposing schools. Tomorrow night it’s where President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off. Workers have been busy completing the elevated stage while Secret Service agents patrolled the arena.
Kevin Carrol: It’s a huge undertaking.
Reporter: Kevin Carrol is Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications at DU. He says 1-thousand people have worked behind the scenes for a year to make sure the debate is a success.
Carrol: Looking around, we’re all pretty astounded at the progress that we’ve made. We’re not a big university so the physical plant of the campus has really been transformed and we’re really excited.
Reporter: Outside the arena, crews have erected a maze of fencing all over campus. 5-thousand have been invited to attend a massive watch party in the quad called Debate Fest. Standing in the center of campus DU undergrad Phillip Desjardin says it’s been pretty hectic.
Phillip Desjardin: It’s nonstop, my friends and I consider it was like a war zone with just these giant fences, and all the extra people around campus, so I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming but it definitely just affects the way campus is acting and just the flow of stuff going on around here.
Reporter: It’s a hassle for area residents too. Lisa Lundquist has already felt the intense security build up. Walking her dog through campus, she says she’s not upset about the inconvenience, even though she’s not sure how to get to work tomorrow with all the road closures.
Lisa Lundquist: Just rolling with it, but we’ll see. It’ll probably bring out a little bit of swearing, but so far nothing too bad.
Reporter: Tomorrow afternoon starting at 5pm University Boulevard will be shut down from Evans to Louisiana. And one of the state’s busiest thoroughfares, Interstate-25 will be completely shut down for 5 hours between Hampden to Sante Fe starting at 5pm also. Stacy Stegman, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Transportation, says that was at the Secret Service’s request.
Stacy Stegman: This closure, there’s just not a really good location, so you’re looking at a closure between Sante Fe and Hampton, which means traffic lights and ramps, and things that aren’t ideal from a closure perspective.
Reporter: She estimates it’ll cost the state tens of thousands of dollars. Last time I-25 was shut down, it was for the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Stegman says that wasn’t a nightmare partly because most drivers stayed away. About 50-thousand drivers will be impacted by the closures. She sympathizes with folks who do get stuck in it tomorrow -- because so many drivers will be forced onto city streets off the freeway.
Stegman: It’s not going to be something that’s easy, I mean if you’re on the road that time you’re gonna feel it.
Reporter: She encourages people to take public transportation. RTD will run all trains on it’s normal weekday schedule. B-Cycle, Denver’s bike sharing program is waiving fees tomorrow to riders biking to the event. Governor John Hickenlooper told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner that he understands the headache this will cause, but the Secret Service has their reasons.
John Hickenlooper: When you have both presidential candidates in the same place, this country has enemies out there, we have to take every precaution to make sure that our democratic process is a safe one.
Reporter: He says the media exposure is worth it for Denver and the state as a whole. Despite the headaches, past debate hosts have nothing but good things to say about the event. Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra University, liked it so much that his school will host a debate again this year.
Stuart Rabinowitz: To host one of the most important events in American political life, is in my view probably worth some disruption.
Reporter: He says they were able to raise the millions it cost to host the event from the community -- most recognizing the importance of having their town as the center of the world's attention for a night. Bob Fisher is president of Belmont University which hosted a debate in 2008. He says they studied the value of all the attention, and estimated it would have been worth about 20 million dollars in advertising for the school.
Bob Fisher: It really is the Super Bowl of politics, and it’s something I hope that whole community, and I know you will, come around.
Reporter: DU has paid the Presidential Debate Commission $1.6 million for the rights to host the event. And millions more has been poured into preparations. There’s no final tally yet. But school officials are relying on businesses and foundations to help pick up the tab. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off tomorrow at 7pm.
[Photo: CPR/Ben Markus]
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