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It Takes a Village 

Charlotte's centralized uptown lures the CIAA away from Raleigh

This week, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association will kick off its first-ever tournament in Charlotte. To Charlotte's elites, it represents a stunning cultural and political victory, the first flex of the muscle of the synergistic new uptown they've labored 20 years to create.

Beyond complaints about traffic snarls, it's unlikely many Charlotteans realize what it meant to uptown boosters to snag the event. Snatching the week-long basketball tournament away from Raleigh, where it has been held for six years, was a coup of the highest magnitude, and its implications for what else Charlotte can attract are nearly limitless.

To Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tim Newman, it was pretty obvious in the beginning that CIAA officials were only listening to Charlotte's pitch to move the CIAA to the Queen City to be polite. They'd had a good run in Raleigh, a $12 million a year run, and they had no plans to go anywhere else. What could Charlotte possibly have to offer that the Triangle, with all of its vastly superior entertainment, cultural and educational amenities couldn't top? In fact, CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry admitted at a Charlotte City Council meeting last week that the CIAA almost didn't come here.

But as Charlotte representatives began their pitch and wooed the CIAA bigwigs with models of the new arena, their body language seemed to change. "As we started talking, you could see them going, 'Yeah, we need to talk about this,'" said Newman.

It was the first real test of the recruiting power of the new uptown arena and the competition was stiff. To hold on to the tournament, Raleigh was willing to build the CIAA a hall of fame and headquarters. Charlotte wasn't. But Charlotte had something Raleigh didn't: 200 restaurants within walking distance of its arena. Raleigh's RBC Center is surrounded by a sea of parking. Charlotte could offer more than 12,000 hotel rooms within walking distance. In Raleigh, CIAA officials and the high-dollar guests they court each year during the tournament would have to drive back and forth between Raleigh's arena on the outskirts of town and events scattered all around the city. They'd have to hold these events in cramped hotel ballrooms, many of which couldn't hold more than 1,000 people at once.

Charlotte's convention center offered ballrooms that could hold 2,500 to 5,000, also within walking distance of hotels and the arena. Charlotte's arena had twice the premium seating and meeting space of the RBC. If the CIAA came to Charlotte, we'd turn our uptown into a CIAA village for them for a week, Charlotte officials promised. They'd have their own playground with all the amenities they'd need.

It was intoxicating, so much so that CIAA officials gave up a free headquarters from Raleigh to come here, leaving bad feelings in their wake. In recent years, as the competition between Charlotte and Raleigh for businesses, residents and quality of life has become more pitched, scuffles like this have come to mean a lot. With its higher household income levels, lower taxes, better roads, lower crime and better schools, Raleigh is a formidable competitor. In terms of business recruitment and job creation, the city has been nipping at Charlotte's heels for some time now, not quite able to catch up, but always threatening to.

To Raleigh officials, the loss of the CIAA was a terrible embarrassment, one the mayor is still trying to explain in recent articles in the Raleigh News & Observer. Worse yet, it also was a crushing political defeat for Raleigh. In the game of cutthroat competition between the two cities, leverage at the state legislature can make all the difference. If either city gained the upper hand and managed to get state leaders to pump more tourism development dollars its way, it could gain an important edge.

The $500,000 "moving gift" to the CIAA that state legislators slipped into the state budget got hardly any notice in Charlotte, but it made huge waves in Raleigh. The half-million-dollar appropriation, which seemed to have originated from House Speaker and Matthews Representative Jim Black's office, would be used to help Charlotte "promote" the event. The most Raleigh had ever gotten out of the legislature for CIAA promotion was $5,000. The hurt and betrayal practically jumped off the page in a recent News & Observer article about the situation. The News & Observer even went so far as to question whether the promotional subsidy was an appropriate use of state money, a question the paper hadn't asked when the smaller subsidy was directed to Raleigh.

Newman relates Charlotte's victory back to infrastructure.

"Raleigh took the CIAA to a great level, but they took it as far as they could with the infrastructure they have," said Newman. "We can take it to another level because Raleigh is a great city, but the way the Triangle works you have Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill all kind of going at each other and sharing assets in terms of the major entertainment. With Charlotte, everything is centrally focused here and the center city creates an opportunity for more people to come together and more people to take advantage of the event than they could in Raleigh."

For Charlotte, the CIAA victory is about much more than getting an edge over Raleigh. It was a trial run of sorts, a powerful accomplishment uptown leaders can point to when promoting the city for even bigger events.

Tickets to the tournament have already sold out, Newman says. It's the earliest that the CIAA has sold out prior to the start of the tournament.

Another victory, no doubt, that will be recorded for future reference as city boosters take their shining new uptown and market it to the world.


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