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Black businesses and the CIAA pie
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Editor's Note: This column by Qcitymetro.com editor Glenn H. Burkins was first published in The Charlotte Observer's Shop Talk section for small business owners.

Glenn H. Burkins

If the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association moved its annual CIAA basketball tournament from Charlotte, what evidence would remain in the black business community – aside from some party pictures – that we had ever hosted the popular event?

With the CIAA putting the tournament up for bid after 2014, I put that question to some city leaders.

They spoke of the tournament’s obvious impact on the city as a whole, but when pressed to give even one example of how it had helped black business owners, the conversations stalled.

That’s strange. When the Democratic National Convention said it was coming, talk in the halls of leadership was all about “legacy.” Mayor Anthony Foxx said he wanted Charlotte’s business community to be made permanently better for our having hosted the DNC.

An online business directory was built. Business workshops were organized. Even a special business liaison was hired.

But eight years after Charlotte first hosted the CIAA, where is that same focus?

Over the years I have talked with dozen of black business owners. Many said they found the CIAA baffling in how it seeks and awards contracts. Others questioned why so little is done during CIAA week to promote black businesses and self-empowerment.

To be fair, the CIAA is not the DNC, which had a vested interest in making local Democrats look good. The CIAA also doesn’t come to town dangling contacts worth tens of millions of dollars.

But given the need in the black community, it’s hard to know why local officials and the CIAA can’t do better.

According to a 2012 study co-sponsored by the Charlotte Chamber, the region’s roughly 20,000 black-owned businesses still face significant challenges, especially in getting access to capital, attracting clientele and connecting with other businesses.

When I asked Foxx about the CIAA’s legacy in the black business community, he seemed to stumble. (Fairness alert: I had ambushed him during a media event unrelated to the tournament and he had little time to think or respond.)

Mike Butts, executive director of Visit Charlotte, the sales and marketing arm of Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, said the CRVA has limited influence over private clients such as the CIAA, so he suggested I speak with them. The CIAA headquarters in Hampton, Va., did not make Commissioner Jacqie Carpenter available for comment.

Butts, who also chairs the CIAA Host Committee, said the issue of economic empowerment has never come up during any of the meetings he attended.

That admission might be less appalling if an estimated 180,000 people – nearly all of them black – didn’t flock to Charlotte each year to attend CIAA events, if the CRVA didn’t give $1 million a year (about $500,000 of that in tax dollars) to the CIAA, and if the annual tournament didn’t pump tens of millions of dollars into the city’s economy, most of it going to uptown hotels and bars.

In 2005, when the CIAA announced plans to move its tournament from Raleigh to Charlotte, a group of black business owners found themselves in the ironic position of meeting with CRVA to press the issue of black empowerment. Carol Lilly, who owns a Charlotte-based consulting firm, was one of them.

“I think the (CIAA) legacy is going to be great for the city,” she said recently, “but I don’t know of any African Americans who have actually participated, other than some party promoters, caterers and event planners.”

Gerald Johnson, who publishes the Charlotte Post, said smart entrepreneurs always find ways to make money when big groups such as the CIAA come to town. At the same time, Johnson said more could be done.

“I look at it like a circus,” he said. “The CIAA is a package deal that rolls into town once a year. They know what they want to do, and it’s not necessarily to help black business.”

Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.

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