House Bill 2, which has already cost this summer’s Festival for the Eno its Grammy-winning headliner, could now cost the Bull City a $1 million convention.
In October, leaders from companies that include Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Etsy planned to visit Durham for the annual gathering of B Corporation CEOs and executives, a series of related talks and a street festival.
“That is huge,” said Shelly Green, Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO and president. The B Corp programs were expected to generate $1 million for local hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
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Vale Jokisch, director of community services for B Lab, said part of the reason they were planning to come to Durham was because the city reflected this year’s theme of “the road to inclusion.”
Jokisch pointed to city’s historic Black Wall Street, the revitalization of the American Tobacco Campus and other innovative and green spaces.
“We felt like that was largely representative of the sorts of things that we wanted to highlight in our conference, which is how business can create opportunity for all,” she said.
The cancellation highlights the challenge Durham leaders face in dealing with the fallout from the statewide legislation, despite the fact that the city is known for its liberal political stances, diverse population and events such as N.C. Pride.
The General Assembly adopted HB2 law after Charlotte passed an ordinance that permitted transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender that they identify with, along with other non-discrimination requirements.
HB2 supporters say the law protects women and children’s privacy and safety in bathrooms and locker rooms.
The Durham City Council, county commissioners, school board members and other organizations have condemned HB2. Those statements generally state the legislation opens the door to discrimination, prevent related lawsuits in state courts and blocks local policies relating to a living wage.
Across the state, artists, including Bruce Springteen, have canceled their shows and companies have announced plans to freeze expansions and suspend searches for relocation.
Some states have also banned travel of public employees to North Carolina.
Geoff Durham, president and CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, said that he has heard from businesses about the negative impact.
“It is kind of wide reaching from our hotels and lodging industries to some of our regular businesses who reply upon a national or global client base,” Durham said.
No companies have officially indicated that they will not expand or come to Durham due to the law, he said.
Green said she is working to get out the message that Durham has fought for LGBTQ rights for decades, but backlash to the legislation is still taking a toll.
She is working to compile a list of groups that have canceled due the legislation. As of Friday, it was about a dozen ranging from the B Lab event, which typically has about 500 people to its main 2-and-a-half day conference, to meetings with about 50 people.
“While I was looking forward to coming to Durham, I can not in good conscience do so at this time,” DiFranco said in a statement. “When one of us is oppressed, all of us are oppressed, and only through the strength of our collective action will change occur. I wish to add my voice through this small action to the chorus of all of those working to make our world a more loving and accepting place.”
Greg Bell, director of the July festival which helps buy land to protect the Eno River, said the organization had sought a major headliner to spur advanced ticket sales, a sort of fiscal insurance against bad weather. DiFranco was Bell’s first choice as she is aligned with the Eno River Association’s history of grass roots activism, empowering individual voices and creating meaningful change.
Now, he said, he is scrambling to identify another headliner, which he hopes to announce in two to three weeks.
Meanwhile, the LGBTQ Center of Durham received an unexpected donation from comedian and actor Joel McHale, who performed at the Durham Performing Arts Center April 8.
During his performance, a snippet of which was posted on YouTube by someone in the audience, McHale said there “was a moment where he wasn’t going to come” due to the legislation. Citing the Durham City Council’s passage a resolution opposing the bill, McHale said he decided to come and donate “every single dime” he made from the appearance to the LGBTQ Center of Durham.
Helena Cragg, LGBTQ Center board chair, said they will reach out to those most affected by the law and use the money to “lift them up and support them.”
Cragg didn’t want to disclose the amount beyond saying it was thousands of dollars because she didn’t want to affect McHale’s negotiations with future venues, she said.
While a lot of the focus has been on the economic impact, people also need to keep in mind the toll it is taking on people, specifically the transgender community, across the state, she said.
Using public restrooms has always been a sensitive issue for them, she said, and the legislation has only amplified their concerns.
“We need to support them whether we are in the craziness of HB2 or not, and I hope that people don’t forget that,” Cragg said.