DANVILLE — When it hosted a vice presidential debate in 2000, this city of about 15,500 was the smallest to do so. When Danville hosts the 2012 vice presidential debate Thursday night, the city of about 16,200 still will be the smallest to host the nationally televised event.
The Boyle County seat has grown a bit during the past dozen years, if not so much in population — it gained 741 residents from 2000 to 2010, census figures say — then at least in confidence.
"I certainly believe there is less apprehension to the question, 'Can we pull this off?'" said Danville stockbroker Mike Perros. "Now the attitude is pretty confident: 'Yes, we can.'"
Few cities get the chance to host one debate, much less two, said Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney. That fact alone sets Danville apart from other communities.
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"That is a pretty neat angle for a journalist trying to put an identity on Danville," McKinney said. "I think that's an angle that will bode well for this community. ... All of a sudden people have a different concept of Kentucky. There's a whole lot of people who have a concept of Kentucky, and it isn't with shoes."
Perhaps the most noticeable change since the national media descended on Danville in 2000 is the legalization of alcohol sales.
In November 2002, voters approved alcohol sales by the drink in restaurants that have at least 100 seats and derive at least 70 percent of their income from food. Alcohol sales began in March 2003.
Then, in March 2010, voters approved the expansion of alcohol sales to include beer pubs and liquor stores. That has brought more restaurants to town, and a couple of microbreweries now slake the thirst for craft beers.
Although alcohol flows more freely and legally, convictions for driving under the influence have not increased that much, according to figures compiled by Kentucky State Police. There were 130 convictions in Boyle County in 2000 and 153 in 2011.
In some ways, Danville is a microcosm of the nation at large. It has been affected by job losses and a slow recovery. And health care is a bigger portion of the local economy, as it is in the national economy.
Unemployment in Boyle County was slightly more than 4 percent in 2000. In August, the last month for which state figures are available, the unemployment rate stood at 10 percent.
Some of the biggest factories, including ATR Wire & Cable and Philips Lighting, have closed. Panasonic Appliances Co. moved many jobs to Mexico, but it still has about 120 employees at a research and development center, said Jody Lassiter, executive director of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership.
"We have experienced the same adjustments to manufacturing that the rest of the American economy has," Lassiter said.
Still, Danville has lured more than 360 manufacturing jobs since 2009, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.
There are new employers, such as Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems, a British company that has two plants in Danville. Others, such as Red Wing Shoe Co. and Intelligrated Inc., a conveyor manufacturer, had announced work-force reductions, then they reversed themselves and kept some jobs.
There is more regional cooperation in the search for new jobs, with a more intense focus on small employers, officials said.
"We used to scrap and fight over 1,500 jobs. Now we scrap and fight over 15 or 20 jobs," said Greg Caudill, president of Farmers National Bank.
Meanwhile, the city's growing health care industry has been boosted by an aging population, renewal of old facilities and technological advances.
Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center spent $36 million on an addition that included a bigger intensive care unit; a new obstetrical and women's care wing; and a new gift store, chapel and cafeteria. The hospital had 162 beds in 2006 and now has more than 220.
Last month, the medical center was recognized for outstanding performance in its treatment of heart attacks, heart failure, pneumonia and its surgical care by The Joint Commission, the leading accreditor of health care organizations in America. (Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington also was recognized in those areas.)
Elsewhere, there is an ambulatory surgery center in a Main Street building and a neuroscience facility in the former Slone's grocery store. Commonwealth Cancer Center has its headquarters in a business park, and Heritage Hospice Inc. is growing, too.
But being a regional medical center affects Danville in other ways, police Chief Tony Gray said.
"We have a huge pill problem here, probably bigger than a lot of people realize," Gray said of those who abuse or sell prescription pain pills. "That is a hard issue to address because a lot of it is abused by people who have prescriptions. We have to get help from the attorney general's office and the Kentucky State Police. The pipeline to Florida is still open."
Nevertheless, Danville consistently ranks high among American small towns when judged for its median household income, home prices, crime rates, unemployment rates, average commutes and lifestyle amenities, such as community events and performance venues.
In September, Danville made Livability.com's list of Top 10 Small Towns in the country. The Web site said Danville "features charming neighborhoods, and residents take great pride in their city. Life here seems to move at a slower pace, but that doesn't mean there's a lack of things to do."
The city also was a finalist this past summer in a Rand McNally contest to find the most beautiful small towns in America. Money magazine picked Danville as the No. 4 retirement destination in the country. Livability.com also picked Danville as No. 9 on a list of the Top 10 best communities in historic preservation.
"We don't hesitate one minute to blow our own horn," McKinney said.
Despite the accolades, there's room for improvement, said local car dealer Stuart Powell. Danville has changed for the better in most cases, "but there are still some voids that I personally feel need to be filled.
"That is, we need to encourage more industry here and to nurture the industries we have, and to develop our downtown area as a retail marketing area as well as a semi-destination of entertainment and restaurants."
Wilma Brown, former director of the Community Arts Center — a museum and arts venue that came to Danville after the 2000 debate — said some residents wonder out loud whether Danville is losing its charm. Brown was also a leader in the effort to bring alcohol to the city.
"Occasionally we get letters to the editor saying, 'I want to go back to the 1950s, when the town was quiet and quaint and sweet,'" Brown said. "But I always want to say, 'We had polio and discrimination, and women couldn't have a decent job.' So you can't go back to anything like that. I understand what they're saying, but you can't go back to another time. ... I'm all for progress."