Barry Saunders

Saunders: Charlotte, the CIAA just can’t quit you

Johnson C. Smith University 100 Club Alumni members from left, Tommie Dewalt, Hattie Dewalt and Dorothy Davis cheer for their team during the CIAA basketball tournament women's basketball game Tuesdayin Charlotte.Johnson C. Smith University defeated Elizabeth City State University 70-50.
Johnson C. Smith University 100 Club Alumni members from left, Tommie Dewalt, Hattie Dewalt and Dorothy Davis cheer for their team during the CIAA basketball tournament women's basketball game Tuesdayin Charlotte.Johnson C. Smith University defeated Elizabeth City State University 70-50. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Somewhere in Charlotte, city and business leaders are probably laughing and asking themselves, “Just what do we have to do to insult these people?”

The city has already demonstrated its indifference – perhaps even antipathy – toward the CIAA Basketball Tournament and the thousands of people who attend it by:

▪ Shutting off side streets so you have to drive miles in some instances just to make a turn.

▪ Jacking up hotel room and service rates.

▪ Offering the tournament director an astonishingly low contract to keep the lucrative basketball bacchanalia there for seven more years. Even more astonishingly, she accepted it.

Like the swallows returning annually to the mission at Capistrano, thousands of CIAA alumni and fans reflexively – but unreflectively – return to Charlotte annually for the tournament. Unlike what the birds will be dropping, CIAA alumni will be dropping millions of dollars this week in Charlotte hotels, restaurants and clothiers.

While they’re swiping cards, flashing cash and talking trash, though, their alma maters are wheezing on respirators because alumni donate so little money to them.

Charlotte has estimated that it takes in around $50 million each year from the tournament.

As evidence that there is no insult bad enough to deter a CIAA alum intent upon enriching Charlotte’s bottom line to the detriment of her or his alma mater’s financial health, just look at what happened last year: the Ritz-Carlton hotel got busted imposing a black tax – they diplomatically called it a “modest” 15 percent CIAA surcharge, but it was a black tax – on CIAA customers.

You probably figured that this time around, proud, educated alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities would shun the inhospitable hotel the way a snail might shun an overturned salt shaker. ... You figured wrong.

Attorney General Roy Cooper investigated the hotel’s shenanigans and the Ritz reached an $80,000 settlement so it wouldn’t have to go to court and possibly be forced to get up off of some real cash in a settlement.

You probably figured that this time around, proud, educated alumni of Historically Black Colleges and Universities would shun the inhospitable hotel the way a snail might shun an overturned salt shaker, preferring – if necessary – to sleep in their cars rather than spend $800 or more per night in a joint that so blatantly disrespected them, right?

You figured wrong. I called the Ritz and the joint is sold out all week. All freakin’ week.

“It’s CIAA week,” the receptionist named Russell told me when I called Wednesday morning to see if there were any rooms available.

After the attorney general’s office got involved, the Ritz Carlton’s Heidi Nowak, its then-director of sales and marketing, wrote a lame apology “to any guests we may have offended by the addition of a service charge we implemented.”

As someone who has had to apologize more than most, I know that any apology beginning with “to any guests we may have offended” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Speaking of paper, Nowak insisted last year that the surcharge wasn’t meant to single out any one group – despite the fact the paper receipts said “CIAA Surcharge” – and she refused to say whether that surcharge was affixed to any other event. My guess is that it wasn’t.

Ritz or Carlton liked how Nowak handled things: three months after the CIAA surcharge scandal, she was appointed director of sales and marketing for the Ritz’s Grand Cayman resort in the Caribbean. I don’t think that’s a demotion. Efforts to reach her successor, Seamus Gallagher, were unsuccessful.

Of the Ritz conflict, Jacqie McWilliams, CIAA commissioner, said this week in a Charlotte Observer interview, “At the end of the day ... you pick up the pieces and keep moving. That’s what we’ve done.”

Say what?

Of course, McWilliams is the person who oversaw negotiations that netted the CIAA and its institutions a miniscule $400,000 annual increase – from $1 million to $1.4 million, split 12 ways – to keep the multimillion-dollar tournament in Charlotte.

As I wrote when that unarmed robbery was announced, a first-year business major at one of the HBCUs could have negotiated a better deal.

The coup de disgrace of this annual monument to lack of self-awareness is the fact that Charlotte’s city manager, Ron Carlee, has declared the tournament this year an “exceptional event.” However, before y’all go puffing your chests out you need to understand that that is not an honorific.

It simply means, Carlee said, that police have expanded authority to search you – you know, because of terrorism and such.

Oh goody, one more insult to which CIAA devotees can be subjected: where do we sign for six more years of this, commissioner?

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