CHARLOTTE — All eyes are on the city of Charlotte again.
Its the week of the annual CIAA Tournament, but fans, residents and 100,000-plus visitors can expect to see a city and an event like they have never seen before.
Charlotte has changed, you see.
The city — sometimes pitched as the new capital of the New South, with aspirations to out-Atlanta its Georgia neighbor — has experienced some of the most trying times in its history.
Charlotte originated a bathroom ordinance that led to the state-mandated House Bill 2, that, in turn, caused the state to lose millions of dollars in business, entertainment and athletic ventures including the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.
HB 2, which mandated that people use the public restrooms of the gender on their birth certificates, also caused organizers of the citys premiere event the CIAA Tournament to consider moving the game to Virginia last year.
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Then the city exploded in human rights unrest and protests, prompted by yet another controversial fatal police shooting in a residential neighborhood. The nationally televised drama left a deep stain on Charlottes once pristine image.
The reverberations led to voter rejections of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Charlotte native, and once popular Mayor Jennifer Roberts.
From the ashes, Charlotte elected a new mayor, Vi Lyles, the citys first black woman to hold the office, and brought an infusion of fresh blood to the city council.
HB 2 has been repealed; the All-Star Game has been assigned to Charlotte for 2019, Black Panther has . You get the point.
Through it all, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams continues to hold court, and this week she is the belle of the round ball, queen of the Queen City, and she is up to the challenge of making Charlotte great again.
McWilliams, who moved to the Charlotte area when the conference relocated its headquarters to the city in 2016, discussed this weeks road ahead in a couple of conversations.
One key to moving forward, she said, was bringing in diversity consultant Nevin Caple to help shape discussions with city government and civic leaders as well as help craft events and conversations at last years tournament.
I think they see the CIAA as a center piece of helping bridge some of what has happened, McWilliams said.
We were able to do some things during the tournament, just to talk about whats going on during the tournament and how do you accept people for who they are, she said.
And honestly, inclusion has always been a topic for us, McWilliams said. I always say we were founded on discrimination, and so its not that hard to have race dialogue for CIAA.
But working with various entities in Charlotte, and having that same dialogue has been positive, she said.
With some fans staying away, the 2017 CIAA made an economic impact of $47.7 million to the region, down from its average of around $50 million, according the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
The 2018 Tournament is the 73rd for the mens event and 44th for the womens.
The numbers were down last year, McWilliams said. I think we all took a hit from that. Folks boycotted the state, the city People around the nation pondered whether to attend.
And for the tournament to stay here was huge, she said. People are still thanking myself and board members for that, because if we had left, what would that have meant for the city?
What would it have meant for the CIAA when weve always had to deal with some adversity.
It’s a CIAA North vs South division showdown as the Johnson C. Smith Golden Bulls host the Virginia Union Panthers in a tough game that came down to the final play.
McWilliams said the experiences of a year ago opened up some opportunities for us to really brand ourselves on our campuses, have open dialogue with our students.”
We were already doing that, she said. It just hit another level.
Whats been interesting is after the tournament, weve probably had more dialogue with the city than weve had since Ive been here.
So tournament organizers and city leaders are better able to deal with the nuts and bolts of public safety, economic development and other issues.
(CRVA CEO) Tom Murray and I have been working together and addressing some concerns that the city has had — how they can help and what they can do to help us.
For instance, the CIAA and city officials have worked to alleviate instances of the so-called black tax, a surplus charge some businesses were adding to CIAA food and drink tabs.
We all monitor it; the fans monitor it, she said. Folks still want to talk about that, but at the end of the day, whatever happened in the past weve been able to move forward. I think that was a learning lesson for this community.
Also, CIAA and city leaders have worked with hotel partners to make lodging more affordable during during the event.
Now lets keep it real, McWilliams said, the All-Star Game is coming here in 2019, and so we are a great source that can help them clean up some of this stuff before they (All-Star crowds) come.
Traffic and crowds on Friday are expected to be multiplied by the funeral of evangelist Billy Graham, Americans Pastor, a Charlotte-area native. President Donald Trump is expected to attend, but timing and route of the presidential motorcade has not been released.
On other fronts, the CIAA has developed a mobile app that makes it easier for fans to follow the plethora of CIAA-related activities.
McWilliams said the CIAA also is reaching out to other diverse groups, such as Hispanics, and to the larger community to attend events.
If you love basketball — you may not follow any of the teams — but were in the state of North Carolina, where basketball is a hot sport, she said.
Steven J. Gaither and Wali Pitt put the full court press on this years CIAA Tournament bracket and make their game by game picks as well as tell you who they think will win tournament MVP.
McWilliams and city officials are also continuing to have conversations about how the league and schools can gain proceeds from the scores of events around the city during CIAA week.
For instance, party organizers from around the city list the expected attendance of Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Rick Ross, Odell Beckham Jr., Trina, Cardi B, and Michael Vick, among dozens of other celebrities. Plus, Katt Williams is performing.
That revenue-share situation has no easy answers.
This is a large event, where if folks feel like they have an opportunity to create jobs, it allows businesses to have events and do their thing, I think well continue to have those conversations about partnerships, about how they can give back into the CIAA, if they are open to having a portion of those proceeds come back to the CIAA, she said.
The league is pushing a Homecoming theme to accentuate the mood of a community celebration.
McWilliams urges fans to buy tickets, attend official CIAA-related events and rent rooms with the CIAA-preferred hotels.
Folks say they love it here, she said, but if you love it here, youve got to invest in what you love.