Tourism board leader 'confident' in quality of Charlotte CIAA bid

An attempt to ease tensions last week by the leader of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority Board over an unsuccessful bid to keep a college basketball tournament resulted in a second round of rebukes from the head of the City Council’s economic development committee. 

Earlier this month, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association disclosed plans to move its annual tournament to Baltimore in 2021, prompting council Democrat James Mitchell and other prominent African-Americans to question whether the Charlotte bid was competitive. The CIAA Tournament generated $29 million in visitor spending in 2018 and $50.5 million in over all economic benefit, according to figures compiled by the visitors authority.

Charlotte’s bid for the 2021-23 tournaments totaled $2.6 million per year, including waived rental fees at city-owned buildings. Baltimore has yet to publicly disclose its bid, but CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams told CBJ earlier this month the proposal was worth $3.5 million.

Mitchell called Charlotte’s pitch “piss-poor” and promised to propose requirements for increased council oversight of bids for major tourism events. Tom Murray, CEO of the visitors authority, has said the tournament likely moved because the conference’s board wanted to have the event rotate among multiple cities rather than stay in one place. Murray has said the visitors authority wants to bring the CIAA back and will pursue the tournament during the next bid cycle in 2022. 

Known as the CIAA, the conference is made up of 13 historically black colleges (12 as of next summer), including Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. The CIAA Tournament first came to Charlotte in 2006 — and has been here ever since. When the six-year contract signed in 2014 ends next year, the tournament will have been here 15 years, becoming the city’s most lucrative annual tourism event along the way.

On Jan. 8, the conference announced it would be taking the tournament to Baltimore for three years starting in 2021. Charlotte and Norfolk, Virginia, were the other bidders.

Responding to Mitchell’s criticism of the visitors authority, the tourism agency responsible for assembling the CIAA bid, last week board chair Tracy Montross sent an email defending the bid to Mayor Vi Lyles and all 11 council members. Montross, who is also regional director of government affairs at American Airlines, wrote that the board “was confident in both the bid’s competitiveness and the many perspectives that had been taken into account in shaping its contents.”

Montross leads the 13-member board. The mayor selects four board members; council chooses nine.

“We are confident that Charlotte’s determination will yield even more opportunities that the CRVA and our Board of Directors are proud to pursue on behalf of the Charlotte region, including hosting the NAACP’s Convention in 2021,” Montross wrote in the Jan. 16 email. “We also eagerly look forward to submitting a bid for the CIAA tournament to return to Charlotte in 2024.”

Mitchell responded later the same day with an email enumerating his concerns about the bid, including what he believed to be a low-ball pledge for scholarship donations to the CIAA ($1.5 million, less than the $2 million “I have always advocated for”), lack of corporate support and an attempt to reduce the number of tournament games played in the uptown NBA arena.

“Thank you for informing the Mayor & City Council that the CRVA Board was engaged in the CIAA bid proposal,” Mitchell wrote to Montross. “This is very disappointing that with the Board engagement the CRVA still submitted a ‘piss-poor’ bid.”

After describing his misgivings with various elements of the bid, Mitchell took issue with Montross mentioning the NAACP convention coming to Charlotte in 2021.

“Lastly, it is insulting to me for you to make reference to the NAACP Convention in 2021 in Charlotte during this discussion,” Mitchell wrote. “The pursuit (of the NAACP) was underway before we submitted our ‘piss-poor’ bid. This one event in 2021, cannot replace the economic impact of the CIAA tournament.”

This is an election year for council members. Mitchell is in his second term as an at-large member and, prior to that, won seven terms as a district representative.

Montross knows city government well, having served as chief of staff to then-Mayor Anthony Foxx from 2011 to 2013.

Of the tournament’s imminent departure, Montross wrote, “We are all incredibly disappointed to learn the news of the CIAA selection (Jan. 8) and the loss of this valuable piece of business, as it’s been a defining event for our city and a bedrock for our tourism industry ...”

Former state Sen. Malcolm Graham, who was a council member when Charlotte wooed the CIAA from Raleigh, told me that he, too, thought the city failed to appreciate the importance of keeping the tournament.

Dimple Ajmera, a council Democrat, said the emphasis now must be on making sure the tournament returns. Few other events could match the CIAA Tournament when it comes to filling hotels and restaurants on a yearly basis in late-February.

“CIAA is an asset to our community and I want to do everything in my power to bring it back,” she said. Beyond the jobs helped or created by basketball fans coming to town for the tournament, Ajmera said there is an intangible cultural loss, too.

Vincent Chelena, executive director of the Charlotte Area Hotel Association, responded to criticism by Mitchell for increased scrutiny and control over visitors authority bids as “unwarranted and shortsighted.” Losing the CIAA is disappointing, Chelena said, but not a sign of weakness for the industry as a whole.

“We are a thriving destination city that happens to be in high demand,” Chelena said in a response sent to CBJ after reports of dissension over the tournament bid. “Developers seem to think so. There are 41 new hotels either under construction or in the planning stages right now in metro Charlotte.”

The 2019 CIAA Tournament tips off in Charlotte on Feb. 25 and ends March 2.

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