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Assessing CIAA 2009 

Can you say Chocolate City? The Queen City may have stolen D.C.'s moniker this past week with the success of the CIAA tournament. After a couple of years of growing pains, it seems as if Charlotte has officially come into the present and rolled out the red carpet for a major sports tournament that dumps more than $20 million on the city and hosts 180,000 visitors over the course of a few days.

Last week, while the rest of the world was in a recession, Charlotte was not, playing host to one of the country's most illustrious events, celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Black folks decked out in fly clothes, sporting hot whips, frequenting local establishments and bringing crazy energy to the Q.C. was the norm.

If you're wondering where this enthusiasm is coming from, the CIAA tournament has been fraught with drama over the last few years since Charlotte became the host city. In its first couple of years, folks complained that many businesses "closed" when the tournament came to town, ticket prices to parties were out of control, liquor prices were considerably higher than usual at various locations and traffic downtown was horrible. It was also reported that black folks were subjected to long lines and rude behavior by bar owners/workers.

Many people felt like black folks weren't wanted in the Queen City. Why else would such a lukewarm welcome be given to some of the most educated and affluent blacks in the country? It seemed as if Charlotte was not ready for a tournament of this size nor was it aware of the significant role that the CIAA has played in American culture in general, and African-American culture specifically.

Many basketball greats came out of HBCUs, including Willis Reed, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Richard "Pee Wee" Kirkland, Earl Lloyd (the NBA's first black player), John Chaney, Avery Johnson, Charles Oakley, Ben Wallace and Fred "Curly" Neal, a JCSU grad. Johnson C. Smith University has been a part of the Charlotte community since 1867 and a major part of the CIAA, not to mention the fact that North Carolina plays host to more HBCUs than any other state outside of Alabama.

HBCUs were established to serve the educational needs of black Americans. Prior to the time of their establishment, and for many years afterwards, blacks were generally denied admission to traditionally white institutions. As a result, HBCUs became the principle means for providing postsecondary education to black Americans up until 1964, for obvious reasons. During this time, conferences like the CIAA and MEAC developed to showcase black athletic talent. These tournaments became more than just athletic events -- just as many folks came to party, socialize, network, attend special events and fundraise as those who came to watch the basketball games.

This year, in spite of the recession, it seems as if Charlotte got it right. Traffic flowed nicely due to an increased police presence, venues that had previously been "closed" to CIAA events were open, advance tickets were readily available at discounted rates, lines moved quickly and bar owners/workers were friendly and welcoming.

According to Dee Miller, owner of BSGO Promotions, "I think the businesses in Uptown were much more receptive than in past years. Instead of us having to beg to be a part of their venue, they actually sought us out and asked us to partner with them."

Mike Witt, executive chef/manager of CANS agreed with Miller. "This is our first time participating in CIAA and it has been a great experience. Business has been fantastic, people are having a good time, and we haven't had any problems. Participating in CIAA activities was a great decision, and I'm sure that we'll do it again in the future."

While many agree that this CIAA really pulled Uptown businesses and the African-American community together, others argue that it may be because the recession has hit Uptown businesses so harshly that they had no choice but to open their doors to the CIAA.

Johnathan Cuevas, owner of Apostrophe Lounge offers, "Everybody's hurting, so venues look for any way to make money. A lot of venues are a lot more open to working with diverse crowds because they've seen the power and the draw and the money that folks are bringing to the table."

The emergence of black-owned clubs like Tempo, Apostrophe Lounge and 935 may have also played a role because while Uptown businesses have been hurting, these businesses have been thriving in spite of the recession. Cuevas adds, "Black-owned businesses play a huge role because they provide more options for people. A year and a half ago we would be locked out of certain Uptown venues or have to depend on others to get an event done. Now, we can do it ourselves, and that carries weight."

In spite of these major changes, this year's economic performance may have been impacted by the combination of the recession and bad weather. People often say that the CIAA is weather-proof and recession-proof, but that was not the case, especially at the day parties and Saturday night.

Mike Kitchen, owner of the marketing and event planning company The Sol Kitchen, who has been promoting events for six years, says that this year was better, but there is room for improvement. "Due to the economy, some of the hottest venues like Alley Cat did not do as well as it should have. College Street should have been like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, but it wasn't."

When asked if ticket prices had something to do with it, Kitchen stated, "Maybe but it should not have since most places were selling tickets well in advance and at discounted prices. Folks should know by now that if you wait until you get to the door, you're going to pay significantly more. CIAA is not the time to try and figure out what everybody is doing before buying tickets. You need to buy them right away to take advantage of the significant discounts. Why would you pay $100 to get into a party, when you could have paid $35 in advance?"

In spite of the economy and bad weather, CIAA seemed to thrive this year with folks feeling that finally a happy medium had been found. It will be interesting to see how the conference changes and grows over the next couple of years. Clearly, the CIAA is here to stay, and Charlotte is now onboard.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.

 For even more of The N Word, check out regular commentary from Nsenga Burton on our news blog The CLog.

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