Danville recently won accolades from a website for being among the Top 10 Mayberry-like towns in America, and it’s not too difficult to see the parallels that connect that bucolic TV town of the 1960s to our fair city’s station in 2012.
Mayberry had its town band and its pie-eating contests and Danville has its Great American Brass Band and BBQ festivals. In both locations, friendly crowds gather to hob-nob with their neighbors and guests, there’s hardly a hint of trouble, and a good time is had by all.
Mayberry, however, never hosted a vice presidential debate.
“We were just voted one of the top Mayberry-like communities in the country. We’re not used to this kind of high-security event,” said Danville Police Chief Andy Griffith, er, Tony Gray. “A lot of people are concerned about road closures and things like that, and maybe feel like they’re in prison a little bit.”
With Thursday’s much-anticipated showdown between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan looming ever closer, debate preparations are beginning to make Centre College take on the look and feel of a militarized zone. Street traffic has picked up noticeably. Concrete barriers and 8-foot-high fencing has been installed. Temporary towers erected. Serious looking men with earpieces stand out among students strolling the campus.
Longtime Danville resident Rusty Ellis, who lives in Charleston Green less than half a block from the debate’s ground zero, the Norton Centre, said it’s been a bit disconcerting to watch as “Centre is starting to look like an armed camp. It really is surprising to see all the fencing and barriers going up.”
Ellis and other members of the condominium complex on West Walnut Street were briefed last weekend on what to expect as the debate draws closer by Centre Vice President Richard Trollinger, Kentucky State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski and the head of the Secret Service in Kentucky.
As security is ramped up in the hours leading up to the debate, Charleston Green residents will have to carry identification with them when they come and go from their homes, Ellis said, and visitors are discouraged. Guests who do come will be required to show ID and know the phone number of the person they are visiting. There will be three checkpoints to pass through. Window blinds must be drawn and residents are advised not to stand in front of windows because they might appear to be potential assassins, Ellis said.
“It’s a little inconvenient, but it’s not like we’re being photographed or fingerprinted,” said Ellis, who is planning to go Lexington for dinner Thursday evening and watch the debate in a more hassle-free environment. “I think it’s a good thing for Danville and for Centre, but it’s not quite as easy for everyone as it was 12 years ago.”
Centre hosted the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman in 2000, but that was before the 2001 terrorist attacks forced security for any possible target events to be raised to the highest levels.
Gray was a detective in 2000 and was stationed directly in front of the Norton Center in a monitoring and crowd control role. Security at the first debate could be described as lax compared to what’s involved this year, he said.
The main concern of the Secret Service is to protect Biden, Ryan and other high-level dignitaries who may attend. KSP is the lead agency and will have a heavy presence with uniformed and plain clothes officers. The Danville Police Department and Boyle County Sheriff’s Office, with additional manpower from Lexington Metro Police and other agencies, will have officers inside the debate area, on the perimeter and keeping peace in the rest of the city, Gray said.
“We still have to have the manpower available to handle a significant event outside of what’s going on at the debate,” the chief said.
Travel restrictions begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday, with West Walnut and College streets on the Centre campus being closed to traffic. Beginning at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, streets leading into Centre between Fourth, Main and Russell streets will be shut down except for local residents.
The big clamp-down comes at 6 p.m. Thursday, three hours before the scheduled start of the debate. Main Street extending out Perryville Road to the bypass and Fourth Street from Main to Grant will be off limits, mainly to provide routes for arriving VIPs to get to Centre. Those closures will remain in effect until Ryan and Biden have been whisked away, Gray said.
While streets close to the Norton Center will be blocked with heavy-duty concrete barriers designed to prevent a vehicle loaded with explosives from reaching the site, other restricted streets further away will use “soft barricades” consisting of wooden barriers or police vehicles to impede traffic flow, Gray said.
Danville officers and sheriff’s deputies will man those stations because they are likely to know residents who live on those streets, which will allow them easier passage, he said.
Pedestrians attending debate related activities will also have to deal with obstacles.
The heart of campus around the Norton Centre will be accessible only to those with credentials. The AARP Debate Festival — featuring music and big screen monitors for watching the debate — on the lawn in front of Old Centre will have only one entry/exit point on the west end of Main Street near Maple Avenue. Similarly, the only way to get in and out of Speakers Park on the football practice field will be a gate on Russell Street. Traveling between the those two sites will require a good little hike along Main, Fourth and Russell streets, because the center of campus will be off limits.
Parking close to campus will be hard to find. Satellite parking lots at the Boyle County Fairgrounds and Lexington Avenue Baptist Church will have shuttle buses running to and from the downtown area beginning at 10 a.m. on Thursday, and Gray advised those driving to town for the debate to use them.
Debate planners and security are still finalizing details for the event and likely will be up until the last minute, so additional restrictions could be imposed, Gray said, recalling from the 2000 debate that many of the VIPs decided to attend at the last minute, creating some chaos trying to get them to the show on time.
Organizers don’t have a clear idea of how many people might show up to take part in the spectacle, Gray said, but they are anticipating a crowd at least as big as the 10,000 to 15,000 that annually fill up the campus for the brass band festival.
As residents express some concerns and confusion about how an event of international scope will impact their daily lives, Gray is trying to allay their worries with a decidedly Mayberry of the 21st Century approach.
“I’ve been telling people it’s going to be a like a 5K race,”he said. “Some streets will be closed and there will be some minor inconveniences, but it will be over in a few hours and things will get back to normal.”