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$1 million in state funds for hoops?

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Charlotte got its piece of the pie. Now Raleigh wants a slice, too. Legislation introduced last week would appropriate $500,000 from the state's general fund to the City of Raleigh for the struggling MEAC basketball tournament. Last year, Charlotte received that amount for its rival CIAA tournament and is asking for another half-million dollars for 2007-08.

This battle for taxpayer money underscores the tension between Charlotte and Raleigh over college basketball, and raises questions of whether taxpayers should be footing the bill for sports tournaments, successful or otherwise. House Bill 1875, sponsored by Rep. Linda Coleman (D-Wake), was filed at the behest of Raleigh Assistant City Manager Lawrence Wray, but before the release of the Raleigh/Wake Steering Committee's 2007 report in which Wray bemoans the lack of tax revenue generated by the tournament. That report also pointed out the weaknesses in marketing, fund-raising and coordination with MEAC headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va. (See "MEAC: high costs, low turnout," April 25.)

Coleman did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2005, Raleigh lost the enormously successful Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, which it had hosted for six years, to Charlotte. Searching for another basketball tournament, Raleigh leaders won a three-year contract with MEAC, a conference better known for its football program and with little support for hoops.

While MEAC tournament attendance at the RBC Center has increased by one-third from 2006-07, it has not come close to CIAA levels. In March 2007, MEAC attendance was 30,000—20 percent of which were free tickets—compared to more than 100,000 for the CIAA tournament in 2005, the final year it was held in Raleigh.

Corporate fund-raising for MEAC was inadequate both years, requiring Raleigh and Wake County to pitch in a total of $800,000 during that time to compensate for the shortfall.

Raleigh/Wake Steering Committee member Jim Mebane wrote in an e-mail to the Independent that he learned of the bill last week, although his committee hasn't discussed it.

"I don't believe this event rises to the level where state funding should be sought," wrote Mebane, senior vice president of First Citizens Bank. "We know how the Charlotte funding came about and that should not be repeated, either."

Last session, former House Speaker Jim Black—in what appears to be a gift to his Mecklenburg County constituents—ensured that the $500,000 appropriation for the CIAA was slipped into the larger budget bill. That budget item injected Charlotte with enough cash to continue the success of the CIAA without dipping into city coffers.

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said it is appropriate for the state to help fund these tournaments. "The state receives very substantial tax benefits, but doesn't share in the costs," he says.

Of the 7-cent sales tax, nearly two-thirds goes to the state. Moreover, Meeker says, Raleigh deserves the money as much as Charlotte: "Our reaction was, We've lost the CIAA, so how about us, too?"

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