Asheboro could be convention draw

 by Ross A. Holt

During a segment about the Asheboro alcohol referendum on WFDD radio last week, Business Journal of the Triad Editor Justin Catanoso commented that legal alcohol sales are not an economic panacea for a community, but "a piece of the puzzle." I have some experience that sheds light on how this piece fits into Asheboro’s puzzle.

I am the past president of a statewide professional association. As vice-president/president-elect, it was my job to organize our statewide conference and select a site for the next one.

Our conference draws 1,100 attendees and 100 vendors/exhibitors for three or four days. We’re too small for Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro, and often choose Winston-Salem. As the conference is a major fundraiser, we’ve been looking for less expensive venues – last year Hickory, next year Greenville.

One problem with organizing a conference in North Carolina is the length of the state: go too far west and you lose attendees from the east, and vice versa. Asheboro is ideally located to host conferences such as ours, and has an excellent highway network for easy access. Indeed, this group and others with which I have been involved often express a desire to come to Asheboro, but dismiss the idea due to the lack of adequate conference facilities and hotels.

It’s no secret that a conference center near the NC Zoo long has been contemplated. The Business Journal reports that a major national brand has expressed an ongoing interest. The only stumbling block is the absence of legal alcohol sales – the last piece of the puzzle that a big investor needs to make a conference center work.

So let’s look at what happens during a conference of the type that my group holds, and how it ripples into the local economy.

    • The group becomes a customer of the local conference center. The conference center and associated hotels, in turn, have jobs for managers, sales staff, event planners, cooks, wait staff, desk clerks, bellhops, cleaning crews and more. They purchase products and services of all kinds from local businesses.
    • Over 1,100 people come into the community for as many as four days, most staying overnight. They pay for hotel rooms, and the local occupancy tax goes into public coffers.
    • Attendees go out in groups to local restaurants, sometimes for three meals a day; restaurants prosper.
    • The conference provides tour buses on a couple of days to take attendees to local tourist and shopping attractions. It’s a good deal for the bus company and tour-goers find pottery, antiques, art and crafts to purchase. The conference also may sponsor off-site events or make arrangements for conference goers to attend events taking place in the community, such as concerts and plays.
    • After the conference, many people stay to explore the community and its attractions, spending even more money.
    • All these transactions result in significant sales tax collection for local governments. The high-value conference center, hotels and restaurants, meanwhile, pay the property tax.

Consider this level of economic activity replicated continuously. Jobs are created. Tax revenue is generated that helps pay for local necessities (new fire stations, for example) and amenities (renovation of the Sunset Theatre) – while reducing the need for property tax increases. The quality of life is enhanced for the entire community.

Opponents of legalized sale and control of alcohol have to realize that for years they have hobbled Asheboro’s ability to take advantage of all its economic assets, with no good trade off for the loss. The absence of alcohol sales doesn’t make this community any more "clean," as one letter writer put it, than any of the places around us where alcohol is sold legally. Alcohol is consumed here as much as it is anywhere else; it’s just not purchased here. Opponents also are demagoging the drunk driving issue: many carefully-researched studies show that "dry" communities are no safer than "wet" communities in this respect – and may even be more dangerous.

With the slide of this area’s traditional manufacturing industry and the decline in standard of living measures such as poverty level and median household income, it’s past time for Asheboro to complete its economic puzzle. A vote for the Referendum to Legalize Alcohol Sales in Asheboro is the piece of the puzzle that makes many others fall into place.