Politics & Government

Told he might host Biden, business owner ‘thought it was a joke’

Vice President Joe Biden gets a big laugh from Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter during Biden’s visit to Charlotte on Thursday. The vice president came to town with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to discuss the importance of investing in America’s infrastructure.
Vice President Joe Biden gets a big laugh from Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter during Biden’s visit to Charlotte on Thursday. The vice president came to town with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to discuss the importance of investing in America’s infrastructure. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte business owner Mark Middlesworth saw an incoming call Saturday afternoon from a number he didn’t recognize. Then his phone died.

Hours later, after he charged it and sat down to watch a basketball game with his children, he checked his voice mail. That’s when he learned that Extravaganza Depot, the event hall he owns north of uptown, was being considered for a visit from Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday.

“I thought it was a joke,” said Middlesworth, a Democrat who describes himself as a Biden fan.

He called back and spoke with a Charlotte Area Transit System employee who confirmed that Biden’s camp was interested in using his event hall for Thursday’s “Grow America” tour, designed to promote investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

The next few days for Middlesworth, 48, were a mix of stress and mania as he transformed his event hall – typically host to wedding receptions, parties and meetings – into one worthy of a vice president.

That means, for a week, his business stopped as he spent hours in meetings with Secret Service agents, who toured the facility with bomb-sniffing dogs. He chauffeured federal agents throughout his warehouse on a forklift.

He canceled plans to attend a family birthday party and spent about $1,000 to ensure compliance with fire codes. He spent hours consulting with “nitpicking” vice presidential staffers who he said agonized over drapes, chairs and signs – “they were very picky about their signs,” he said. The staffers wanted potted plants on the stage, but they removed them at the last minute, he said.

The Secret Service “investigated” Middlesworth and his employees, he said. Monday night, agents told him one of the background checks didn’t clear and they would have to move the event.

“So, I hang up the phone, have a drink and, 11 o’clock that night, they send me a text saying, ‘we‘re back on,’” he said. They never elaborated on what was amiss.

Charlotte’s Secret Service office declined to comment, other than saying agents did nothing different for Biden’s visit than for any other presidential visit in the past.

So, why did the White House choose the Extravaganza Depot on North Tryon Street? Here’s what Middlesworth said:

▪ A member of the vice presidential planning committee is a Charlotte native and attended her high school post-prom party at the hall several years ago, he said.

▪ To buttress Biden’s message, organizers looked for a facility close to a railroad, he said. During Biden’s speech, two Amtrak trains were parked on the tracks that run parallel to the depot.

About 130 people packed Extravaganza’s reception hall for Biden’s visit Thursday, Middlesworth said. Half of them had been there before, he said, but having newcomers in the door “is certainly a big plus.”

He wasn’t allowed to meet Biden or take a photo with him, he said. Biden’s staff told Middlesworth they had something better for him: A Joe Biden baseball cap and a signed “Grow America” poster.

“It’s not better,” Middlesworth said. “But, I got a nice hat out of the deal.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045

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