HB2 fallout: Officials to announce Thursday if Asheville will keep Southern Conference

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said Tuesday that the Southern Conference (SoCon) will announce its decision Thursday if it will keep the Southern Conference in Asheville. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said Tuesday that the Southern Conference (SoCon) will announce its decision Thursday if it will keep the Southern Conference in Asheville.

The decision is being made in light of controversy surrounding HB2.

"They don't want to have to move," said Manheimer after meeting with SoCon's sommissioner. "There's a lot of work in moving a basketball tournament."

A week ago, Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino hinted that the men's and women's basketball tournaments in the collegiate sports league could be moved from Asheville. Iamarino's comments came a day after the NCAA pulled seven championship events out of North Carolina because of a law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificate.

Despite pleas from the mayor and other city and county leaders including leading members of the city's LGBTQ community, the question remains if SoCon will leave the state.

Other large collegiate sports conferences have left over HB2, amid allegations the law discriminates against transgender people.

"Watching the NCAA walk out the door, and the ACC walk out the door, I know the Southern Conference will be under extreme pressure to make a similar decision," Manheimer said.

Still, city and county leaders hope SoCon's commissioner will consider their pitch that Asheville is a progressive city that embraces all and does not discriminate. Demp Bradford, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Sports Commission also spoke following the meeting with SoCon he said wasn't called only by city leaders.

"First of all, the meeting was a joint effort with the SoCon," he said. "They wanted to listen, they specifically wanted to listen to the LGBTQ community. And, so I think that is important. They really wanted input."

Manheimer said SoCon brings in $2 million in direct revenue and 16,000 hotel stays. John Iamarino, SoCon's commissioner, spoke with News 13 after returning to the conference's headquarters in Spartanburg.

"There are obviously a lot of facets to it, and you're dealing with colleges and institutions that have a wide variety of constituents," said Iamarino. "Clearly, Asheville has been a welcoming community for us for this event. If it were based on the past track record, I don't think we're having this conversation.

"We have worked hard to identify ourselves as a welcoming community," said Manheimer. "We value equality, and we want the commissioner to be able to take that information back to the Southern Conference committee so that they can make a decision on whether or not to keep the basketball tournament here."

RELATED LINK | WNC could lose $20 million if SoCon tournament leaves Asheville

RELATED LINK | Could Asheville lose out on the SoCon Tournament because of HB2?

The event has been held at the U.S. Cellular Center since 2012, and last year the league extended the contract through 2021. The tournament generates an economic impact for WNC estimated at $4 million every March, a significant loss over the next 5 years if the tournament relocates.

Asheville's Sports Commission Director Demp Bradford said an average of 35,000 attend SoCon each year.

Currently, the 2017 SoCon tournament is scheduled for March 2-6 at the U.S. Cellular Center.

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