HB2 Loss Of Architect Conference Costs Wilmington Nearly $1M, Estimates Show

By Cece Nunn, posted Apr 26, 2016
The loss of a regional event for architects that was supposed to be held in Wilmington this fall will likely cost the city nearly $1 million, if not more, according to estimates.

The economic impact of the South Atlantic Region conference of the American Institute of Architects, which was scheduled to be held Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Wilmington Convention Center, would have been $950,000, Kim Hufham, president of the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Tuesday.

The AIA SAR announced Monday that the conference would be moved from North Carolina because of House Bill 2, signed into law March 23. The conference change represents one of the first publicly announced losses of business for Wilmington resulting from the legislation. For other communities in the state, the price tag has continued to climb as a result of cancellations from entertainers and companies.

The AIA estimates that conferences of the size planned for Wilmington, which would have brought in at least 500 organization members from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to the Port City, would be about $1 million or more, said Steven Schuster, one of the regional directors for the AIA SAR. Adding exhibitors, family members and other participants outside of the group’s membership, the number of visitors was expected to be between 1,000 and 1,200, Schuster said.

"The board members and the architect community of Wilmington are very disappointed that the SAR conference is not being held in Wilmington in September," said Michelle Marks, executive director of the AIA Wilmington. "We had hoped to be able to continue the conversation regarding HB2 at the conference in Wilmington."  

On April 19, the Wilmington City Council approved a measure calling on state lawmakers to repeal HB2, something the AIA SAR also called for in its announcement of the location change. On Monday, the first day of the current legislative session for the General Assembly, House Democrats filed a bill to repeal HB2.

"I hope the legislature can find a way to fix this because it seems to be a problem for the entire state," said Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo on Tuesday. "If not, I think we will continue to see this kind of stuff happening. . . . It's a crying shame because I know there's a lot of people that worked very hard over a number of years to bring that conference here, to showcase the city, to showcase the convention center and to have this happen . . . it's a shame." 

Along with the biological identity restroom provision that has led to HB2’s “bathroom bill” nickname, the new law excludes sexual orientation from a statewide definition of people who are protected against discrimination.

A consolation prize for Wilmington is that the North Carolina branch of the AIA is expected to hold its state conference in the Port City next year.

“One of the things we did in trying to mitigate the impact on the city of Wilmington is to commit to them that we would hold our North Carolina conference there next year,” Schuster said. “We don’t get the same numbers of people, but it’s still a major conference. Obviously it was not our intent in having to relocate our conference . . . to do anything that would be harmful to an important city in our state.”

The Wilmington Convention Center’s portion of the lost revenue is $45,000, said Susan Eaton, general manager of the center. The venue's total revenue last year was about $3.3 million. But the conference change means the center’s sales staff will have to try to make up for the loss, Eaton said.

The state AIA has asked that the convention center apply a $10,000 deposit, paid for the regional conference in September, to the state AIA’s conference next year.

Normally, the organization would have lost the deposit and the convention center might not have been able to accommodate the request, but this is a unique situation, Eaton said.

“That doesn’t happen often, that a group will offer you another piece of business, but it is with the idea that they won’t lose their deposit for this year,” Eaton said. “They were with us in 2013 [the state AIA conference], and so they’ve offered to bring us that piece of business in 2017 kind of as a replacement.”

She said the center is working with the state AIA to coordinate dates in 2017 and other logistics of holding the state conference in Wilmington.

As for this year's regional conference, organizers are scrambling to find a new location in either Georgia or South Carolina, Schuster said Tuesday.
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