'It's Just Really Sad': How Charlotte Businesses Lost an NBA Windfall

Feb 17, 2017

NBA All-Star weekend kicks off in New Orleans today, likely bringing in over $100 million in economic activity to the Crescent city for the second time in four years.

It's also money sorely missed by small business owners in Charlotte, North Carolina, which lost the game and the weekend of activities following the passage of the House Bill 2, or the Bathroom Bill, last March.

Paul Manley, owner of the oyster bar Sea Level NC, says every facet of the city's economy has been impacted by the backlash to the bill. It wasn't something he anticipated when he decided to open shop in bustling Uptown Charlotte, where many sports venues and convention centers are located, after researching the area and speaking with local restaurateurs and club owners.

But between August 2015, when he signed the restaurant's lease, and February, 2016, when Sea Level NC opened, "it was two different business atmospheres," he says. The uproar over HB2 was in full swing during that time—and his business plan was completely destabilized in those few short months.

"Things were great, everyone was very optimistic about their businesses, and by the time we opened there was a lot of doom and gloom," he says. "We very quickly realized we couldn’t rely on the business environment we thought we’d have in Uptown Charlotte."

That meant switching from marketing to the convention center and tourism demographic to relying on local residents to sustain the business. Even losing discrete, smaller events like concerts had an immediate ripple effect on businesses in the area, impacting everything from parking to hotels to meals in restaurants.

Manley says he's still optimistic about the future of Charlotte, and believes it will get on the right track again. Still, he notes the bill's passage is an "unfortunate obstacle" for a city that had been on the upswing.

"Even if [HB2] got repealed tomorrow, we’re looking at a few years before we get the sense in Uptown Charlotte that anyone can come do business and anyone is welcome," he says. "The city of Charlotte and the state of North Carolina’s legislature are at odds, and we’re paying the price for that."

The controversial bill requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond to the gender identity listed on their birth certificates. It also excludes gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes under the state's definition of nondiscrimination. The NBA derided the bill as "discriminatory" after it was signed into law, with the league saying it could not guarantee the safety of attendees in the atmosphere created by the bill.

Democrats in the state have tried to repeal the bill, but their efforts so far have been unsuccessful. "I am appalled," Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow shortly after the bill was passed by the state assembly. "Someone can walk out of their business and find a sign in front of their business that says no gays welcome here, and that will be perfectly legal."

Local tourism experts estimated the loss of the NBA All-Star Weekend alone cost the city $100 million. But as other business and tech leaders began pulling jobs, conferences, and other events, like concerts, as a result of HB2, a later report put the loss at over $395 million over the next few years.

For Tom Sasser, the president and founder of the Harpers Restaurant Group, the economic impact felt by frontline workers is the worst part of major events like the All-Star Game being pulled from the city. "Basketball and sports are a huge part of our culture," says Sasser. "It’s just really sad that the folks that work in those businesses and get hired on a temporary basis or full-time basis because of those events will suffer."

Sasser currently operates four restaurants in Charlotte, including one in Uptown since 1996. He is also a member of the city's Restaurant and Lodging Association, which opposes the law. "We have tried diligently to let all the legislators know this is not good for business, this is not good for the state, this is not good for the economy," he says. "But it falls on deaf ears."

Change doesn’t come easy. Charlotte Hornets and basketball legend Michael Jordan, who owns the Hornets, couldn’t save the weekend, despite speaking out against the law."There was an exhaustive effort from all parties to keep the event in Charlotte, and we are disappointed we were unable to do so," he said in a statement last summer.

Ultimately, though, Sasser believes the governor and the legislature will be able to strike a deal that's good both for business and the city's progressive spirit. And the NBA is even considering bringing the All Star Game back to Charlotte in 2019, provided there's a resolution to HB2.

"I’m hopeful that we’ll all kind of figure out a way to reach across the aisle and figure out a solution and get us back on the nice track we were on before this little bump," Sasser says. "I’m very hopeful."

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