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Debate countdown underway in Oxford

On September 26, Ole Miss will host the first of three debates between presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain.

The majority of banter between the two candidates will focus on each man’s position on various domestic policy issues.

That much is certain.

What remains unclear is just how much of an economic impact the one-night event will have on Oxford and the surrounding area.

Oxford and its businesses are accustomed to playing host to large, chaotic events that bring in thousands of people. The time for that is days away, when the Ole Miss football season kicks off August 30 against the University of Memphis.

Hotels are filled months before, restaurants are nearly impossible to get into and gameday traffic is snarled and often frustrating. But with a 65,000-seat stadium and thousands more on the outside, all that congestion means folks are making money.

Whether that will be the case with the presidential debate is not yet certain, but one thing is not: The number of people on hand for the debate will be a fraction of the size of a home football game crowd. As uncommon as presidential debates in Oxford are, the lack of a template does not hide the fact that it will be difficult for one to replicate the pandemonium and windfall of an SEC football game.

“So it’s hard to tell what exactly the impact economically will be on our businesses,” Oxford Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Max Hipp said. “We can usually gauge these things pretty well going in, but we probably won’t know about this until it’s over.”

Though each party has only one candidate, there are hundreds of support personnel and hundreds more media members. It is a virtual certainty that the candidates will spend less than 24 hours in Oxford, but how long the media and behind-the-scenes people stay will probably determine the financial impact of the debate.

“There’s certainly going to be a lot of activity, and it will probably be sustained over a longer period of time than a football game would be,” Hipp said. “The support people will be the biggest part of it, the people who will stay the longest and spend the most money.”

Approximating the number of those support personnel, combined with spectators and those just hoping to get a glimpse of McCain or Obama, is the hardest part. However, many people show will need a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, which could maximize the effect, Hipp said.

“There will definitely be a trickle-down effect,” he said. “So let’s just throw a figure out and say 10,000 people are here. With all the activity and everything else, it is possible that the effect registered could bump up the figure to the equivalent of 20,000 people. It seems like everybody wants to know this, but we honestly don’t know for sure what kind of mark (the debate) will leave in the end. We just have to wait and see. But we’re hoping for the best.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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