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13 groups drop plans for Charlotte events, more could come over HB2

Charlotte Convention Center
Charlotte Convention Center courtesy of Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

At least 13 conventions and events won’t be coming to Charlotte because of concerns over North Carolina’s House Bill 2, and local tourism officials fear the economic fallout will continue to grow unless the controversial law is repealed or amended.

Four groups already have canceled booked events, nine that were seriously considering Charlotte said they are taking their business elsewhere and 29 more are on a “hesitant/concerned list” of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said spokeswoman Laura White.

The fallout from HB2 could translate into a loss of “multiple millions” of dollars in visitor spending to the region, White said. The law passed last month killed a Charlotte ordinance that protected gay and transgender rights.

Meanwhile, one Republican state legislator said Saturday that the furor over HB2 hasn’t been ignored by GOP lawmakers.

“We’re not politically naive to say that these very public announcements and public decisions are not considered and weighed by all elected officials,” Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said. “Everybody is always concerned about economic impacts and things of that nature that effect the economies of local communities. I can tell you there are obviously a lot of conversations going on now in the Republican caucus and General Assembly.”

The four cancellations, White said, came from groups with events booked at Charlotte hotels. She said the moves are a reaction to HB2.

The Virginia-based Southern Sociological Society, which had booked its yearly meeting in 2019 at The Westin Charlotte, canceled because it believes the new law is discriminatory, said society President Barbara Risman.

“I represent our entire executive council in expressing our distress that North Carolina has passed a law that discriminates against people based on sexual orientation and gender expression,” Risman wrote the Westin shortly after legislators passed the bill and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law. “Unfortunately, that makes North Carolina a state where we cannot hold our annual meetings. Just when we had decided that Charlotte was such a great place to meet that we would come every four years, we are now canceling our contract.”

Risman, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said her group would be “thrilled” to meet in Charlotte again if the law is revoked.

Wider economic consequences

David Montgomery, the Westin’s area sales and marketing manager, said the cancellation is an $180,000 loss to the hotel, but it has wider economic consequences. The people scheduled to attend won’t be eating in restaurants or bars, won’t be buying tickets to attractions, renting cars or hailing cabs, Montgomery said.

He said 11 other groups have inquired about canceling reservations at the Westin because of HB2. If they go, the hotel would stand to lose as much as $4 million, he said.

“They are concerned that speakers may not want to come here, and that their attendance may suffer because of the law,” Montgomery said. “These conventions or meetings are the biggest source of revenue for these groups for the year. If their attendance suffers, they get concerned.”

White of the CRVA said the nine groups that have decided to go elsewhere were “far into the consideration state” for Charlotte. “We’ve got relationships with (the 29 groups) and are still actively pursuing them to come to Charlotte,” she said. “But they are definitely on the concerned list.”

If they all snub Charlotte, the region would stand to lose more than 103,000 hotel nights, a substantial number, White said.

She said all the groups on the concerned list represent professional associations, trade shows and corporate events, including the 2017 NBA All-star game.

The Boss bails out

HB2 effectively killed a Charlotte ordinance that would have protected gays, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination in employment and public accommodations – including bathrooms and locker rooms.

The bill also pre-empts similar local ordinances.

It triggered a strong reaction from companies interested in moving to the state, human rights activists and even a rock icon. Friday, Bruce Springsteen announced he was canceling his Sunday show in Greensboro. Last week, California-based PayPal canceled plans to open an operations center in Charlotte, costing the region 400 jobs.

In Asheville on Friday, the Chamber of Commerce said a company interested in bringing 500 jobs there would go elsewhere if changes aren’t made to the law. More than 130 executives from companies such as Bank of America, American Airlines, General Electric and IBM have signed a letter urging McCrory and lawmakers to repeal the bill.

Federal officials said the bill could cost the state billions in federal aid.

Rhetoric on both sides

McCrory and Republican lawmakers have said the Charlotte ordinance would have endangered women by allowing men, posing as transgender women, into bathrooms and locker rooms. HB2 also weakens the ability of local governments to pass anti-discrimination or minimum wage ordinances.

Rep. Jeter said changes to the law – if any – would not take place until the legislature convenes for its short session April 25. He said the truth of the law has been obscured by rhetoric on both sides, that criticism lobbed at North Carolina has been unfair.

He called the law’s ban on workers suing for discrimination in state courts “problematic.”

“The debate has become a highly charged issue,” Jeter said. “Unfortunately because of the rhetoric on both sides finding a solution has been polarizing. Both sides, each with good points, look at this as an all or nothing proposition ... There needs to be conversations that include all sides and that keeps in mind the moral convictions of communities versus our desire to be inclusive.”

State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse called Springsteen’s decision to cancel his appearance at the Greensboro Coliseum “bizarre.”

“The Greensboro Coliseum has men’s restrooms, women’s restrooms and presumably family restrooms,” Woodhouse said in a statement. “The policy passed by the General Assembly rolled back the radical change in bathroom policy by the Charlotte City Council and maintained the status quo. For years young girls have safely used the restrooms at ACC Tournament games and other events at the Greensboro Coliseum separated from grown men. The legislature and Governor simply secured the long-standing common policy of safety and security and privacy.”

Steve Harrison and Jim Morrill contributed to this story.

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