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Was St. Louis the best site?

by Meha Ahmad.
Oct. 3, 2008 – Chicagoan Jon Kaplan may have watched Thursday night’s vice presidential debate held in St. Louis with some longing. Perhaps he was thinking the 3,000-plus members of the media from around the world could just as easily have been sitting in McCormick Place rather than Washington University’s athletic complex.

Kaplan’s employer, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which operates McCormick Place, failed in its bid to host one of this fall’s debates.

Chicago was one of 19 applicants who vied for the chance to host either Thursday night’s vice presidential match up or one of the three presidential debates.

“Hosting a debate would have been a great honor and great exposure for McCormick Place,” said Kaplan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. “It would have been a great opportunity to showcase the city of Chicago.”

Despite being the largest exposition complex in America and the third-largest in the world, McCormick Place fell short, possibly because of its busy convention schedule.

Besides Washington University in St. Louis, which has been selected to host a national debate for each of the last five elections since 1992, the Commission on Presidential Debates chose colleges in Mississippi, Tennessee and New York.

Though McCormick Place is well-known in the trade industry, it may not be as familiar to the average American. Hosting a debate would have been an opportunity for the nation to get a glimpse of McCormick Place and its four buildings’ combined total of 2.6 million square feet.

Chris Karrabis, chief of staff for Ald. Bob Fioretti — whose 2nd Ward is home to McCormick Place — said he has no idea why Chicago lost out to St. Louis; Oxford, Miss.; Hempstead N.Y.; and Nashville, Tenn.

“I can’t think what those cities have that Chicago doesn’t,” Karrabis said, noting that hosting an event of this magnitude would help stimulate the local economy.

Preliminary figures show the 3,100-some credentialed journalists who attended Thursday night’s debate spent more than $1 million in travel, hotel, food and beverage expenses, according to the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

Though the economic help would have been appreciated in Chicago, Kaplan said scheduling a debate at the busy complex could have been a challenge.

“We were certainly willing to do what we [could] to host the debate, but we had a certain amount of business already scheduled,” he said. “Because in our industry, most things get scheduled years in advance.”

Washington University’s ability to accommodate the commission’s scheduling made the St. Louis site stand apart from McCormick Place, Kaplan said.

Peter Eyre, senior adviser for the non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based debate commission, said he isn’t sure if Chicago would have made a better host site.

“Every debate site is different – it’s very difficult to compare them,” Eyre said, declining to specifically address Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses as a host city. “Every potential debate site brings something unique and beneficial to the table.”

Each debate site may offer different benefits, but Eyre said cities that have experience hosting, like St. Louis, have their own draw.

McCormick Place officials said the commission gave positive and encouraging feedback.

“They seemed very impressed by our facility, specifically Arie Crown Theater,” Kaplan said, referring to what would have been the debate hall had McCormick Place been chosen. He said the commission liked the facility, the acoustics and the lighting.

Kaplan said McCormick isn’t closing the door on applying again.

Chicago last hosted a debate in 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy met for the first-ever televised debate.

“Things just didn’t work out this time,” he said.

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