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Amateurs Are All Right When It Comes To Charlotte Tourism

Charlotte has a lot riding on professional sports: millions of tax dollars built an arena for the Bobcats, are helping construct a new home for Knights baseball Uptown and will likely renovate Panthers stadium, too. So does it surprise you to learn that more than half of the city's hotel room bookings each year are the result of amateur athletes

How's this for even more surprising? The holy grail of amateur sporting events that makes Visit Charlotte senior director of sales Bill McMillan salivate, "is women bowlers. "

Like Nellie Manning: "It's like a vacation for the girls. We go to restaurants, we go shopping, and site-seeing if we have the time and we always make a week of it and we just tour and do whatever we can, yeah."

Manning traveled from Maryland in 2007 to join some 40,000 women bowlers for the US Bowling Congress Women's Championships. Hotel bookings in Charlotte broke a record that year. 

Manning – who now lives in Charlotte – says the event is more like a bowling convention than a championship tournament: women coming and going seven days a week for three solid months. It took the Democratic National Convention to finally bring Charlotte hotels a better year than those women bowlers made.

Now, women's bowling isn't terribly sexy or prestigious as sporting events go, but that's not the goal when you're trying to fill hotel rooms and restaurants, says McMillan.

"The more prestigious an event gets, the smaller number of people participate in it," says McMillan. "So we love just good old rec athletes. That's where the numbers are."

There are more of them and they bring their families when they play. Plus, their tournaments tend to happen on weekends and holidays – when 30 to 40 percent of hotel rooms in Charlotte are sitting vacant because the city's business travelers have gone home.

"Amateur sports is a great fit and a great complement to our existing businesses in our community," says Deputy Charlotte City Manager Ron Kimble – the chief proponent of plans to lure more amateur sporting events to the region.  

Mecklenburg County is building a complex of 12 fields and a small stadium in Matthews to cater to large soccer, lacrosse or rugby tournaments.  

The city's plan, among other things, is to renovate Bojangles Coliseum. Tourism officials say the region's real need is more indoor space for things like basketball or volleyball.

Jimmy Peden agrees. He's the commissioner for USA volleyball in the Palmetto region, which has held its championship at the Charlotte Convention Center for seven years. It attracts 300 teams and 4,000 participants, but Peden says next year "with even a conservative growth factor, we would outgrow the convention center, at least in one weekend."

As a result, Peden may split the tournament between Charlotte and another city like Myrtle Beach or Charleston.

Many cities are building gleaming multi-purpose sports complexes and declaring themselves America's Rugby or Soccer or Volleyball Capital. 

Charlotte's answer to that is a refresh of Bojangles Coliseum, which is so under-used that it lost $200,000 last year. Another facility would be built next door for a total of 12 indoor courts good for volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and even bowling.

"It would be the Swiss army knife of facilities - something that's got the ability to do a lot of different things," says McMillan of Visit Charlotte.

Tournament organizers and owners of private sports facilities like Carolina Courts say the Bojangles concept is a great one. And McMillan says it's the only way Charlotte can get the US Bowling Congress back, since private bowling alleys in the region have opted out: they say it was too hard to get their regular business back after being closed for three months during the 2007 tournament.

The trick, though, will be finding $60 million for the Bojangles plan.  The City Council has recommended about half of it come from existing hotel taxes and a proposed increase in property taxes.  The rest would be up to a private investor . . . who has yet to come forward.