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Charlotte Races to Brand Itself as Top Pit Stop

Source: Charlotte Observer  

March 29, 2006

With NASCAR hall of fame coming, promoters use old as well as new themes as lure

If you're coming to see the sights in Charlotte, then you love racing.

If that sounds like a big duh, it's more profound than you think.

Charlotte, like Atlanta, has struggled for years to determine what makes it stand out from the pack.

Yeah, it's a big banking town, but can you really sell that as a tourist attraction?

What about spotlighting the city's shopping? OK, it's pretty good, but isn't the Gap pretty much the same everywhere?

No, it's racing that makes Charlotte unique, say boosters, who for years eschewed that down-home history to tout the city as a center of modern commerce.

Today, they are counting on the planned NASCAR hall of fame --- recently snared from rivals Atlanta and Daytona Beach, Fla. --- to drive that message home.

"When people ask, 'So what do you do in Charlotte?' the hall of fame will help us answer that question," said Tim Newman, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Being able to answer that question is good for business.

Hospitality is Charlotte's second-largest industry at $3 billion annually, and having a destination-worthy attraction probably would mean more tourist dollars.

Plus, it could help define the city for visitors, who locals say constantly confuse it with other "C" cities like Charleston, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va. That mix-up has even found its way into whimsical art in a downtown park that gives directions to all the other Charlottes in the world.

Heywood Sanders, a public administration professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, thinks the NASCAR museum will create destination appeal for Charlotte but wonders whether it has legs. It may drive business in the first year, he said, but what happens when all those who want to see it have done so? Or what happens if interest in the sport cools, as it did with the once-hot hockey?

Sanders, who studies cities' attempts to draw conventioneers, said Charlotte is not alone in this predicament. Like an amusement park, cities across the country are constantly trying to reinvent themselves to keep people coming back.

"It is a continuing quest," Sanders said. "When one public project fails to work, it generates another and then another."

Otis White, president of the Atlanta-based public policy firm Civic Strategies, said the NASCAR move is smart for another reason: US Airways, the major player at the city's airport, is struggling and any help Charlotte can give it keeps the airline there.

"They desperately need to build more business to hold onto that hub," said White, whose firm does research for cities throughout the country.

The NASCAR win also comes at a time when Charlotte is on a roll, Newman said.

The downtown area where the hall will be built --- known both as Uptown and Center City --- is booming. Gleaming office towers are being joined by new hotels under construction. At least five condo high-rises are planned, which will provide more neighbors for the 10,000 people who call the Center City home.

The city also has won a white-water attraction that will both be a training facility for the U.S. Olympics team and open to visitors.

Add to that a new basketball arena for the Bobcats, new restaurants along Uptown's tree-lined boulevards and a burgeoning arts community, and you've got a city that doesn't roll up at 5 p.m. as it used to.

"Ten years ago I'm not sure a family would drive downtown and have much to do," said Rob Odum, a spokesman for Children's Theatre of Charlotte, which recently moved its offices to the new ImaginOn complex in Center City. "Today they have lots of options."

NASCAR shyness gone

You wouldn't know it from the all-out battle Charlotte waged for the NASCAR hall, but there was a time when its leaders were not exactly keen on capitalizing on the sport.

But two years ago, hospitality officials visited Nashville and changed their thinking. The Charlotte leaders, who visit a competing city once a year, were impressed at how the Tennessee capital embraced its image as the center of country music and how that translated into business benefits.

"That was a wake-up call for a lot of people," Newman said.

It may have taken city leaders awhile to get it, but not fans, tourists or conventioneers, said Scott Cooper, a spokesman for Lowe's Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR's main racetracks. The speedway had about 1.2 million visitors last year, and the many racing teams that call Charlotte home --- from Jeff Gordon's to Jimmie Johnson's --- have attracted hundreds of thousands more.

In fact, Lowe's is so popular, it has become a must-visit site for convention and trade-show groups looking for a little excitement in much the same way the Georgia Aquarium has become a draw for convention-goers here.

Lowe's visitors are taken for rides around the track at 160 mph, try their pit crew skills in simulated races and, of course, get to watch the competition if a race is being held.

"This [NASCAR racing] is a $5 billion industry for North Carolina," Cooper said.

That financial power should make the hall of fame perform better than other museum attractions like the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said Tim Calkins, a branding expert and marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

"It's not going to transform the city," he said. "One attraction doesn't make a city appealing. But it certainly helps, though, because it is something that is different and unique."

Even those not intimately involved in promoting the city know NASCAR is where it's at in Charlotte.

Toni Freeman, director of project research for the nonprofit Duke Endowment, said the sport has put the city on the map.

"The NASCAR hall of fame just recognizes Charlotteans' contributions to the industry," she said. "I can't imagine they would have put it somewhere else."

Bank chief overhauled city

Charlotte, named for Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of King George III, was a gold rush town in its early years, which gave way to manufacturing and agriculture, which evolved into banking.

The bankers helped foster Charlotte's recent interest in reviving its downtown. In the early 1990s, NationsBank leader Hugh McColl helped bring the arts downtown, and planted the idea for broad boulevards lined with high-rise residences as well as offices.

His vision is coming to pass, but at a cost. The city has been criticized for leveling so many buildings so fast that downtown lost a feel of history.

"We are probably guilty in tearing down too much of the old to get to the new," said Charlotte Chamber of Commerce President Bob Morgan.

City leaders also have moved faster than was warranted in other ways: A retail project called Cityfair failed in the '90s because there were not enough people living downtown, the CRVA's Newman said.

"Retail follows rooftops," Newman said.

Still, the city continues to take risks to remain forward-thinking, Morgan said. Charlotte is building a light rail system to address future traffic volume before it has the kind of woes that are plaguing Atlanta. The business community operates a free trolley system that takes visitors around Center City.

And a huge bus terminal with shops and restaurants was built to direct the city's transportation away from its main downtown streets. That has helped Charlotte earn a reputation as a walkable city, industry experts said.

Tim Ray, visiting the science center Discovery Place with his 8-year-old daughter, Tabitha, recently, said Charlotte has made strides in making itself a destination.

"There are so many things for families to do here," Ray, the owner of a Chick-fil-A franchise in Hickory, N.C., said among the clatter of hundreds of children. "The experience here is great."

But there is more to be done, Newman said. On his wish list is a minor league baseball stadium and a large city park.

Charlotte has to close down its major Center City thoroughfares to have the kind of big events held at Atlanta's Piedmont Park.

Jamie Banks, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte Bobcats Arena, said she sees Charlotte's potential and how rapidly it is meeting it.

"We are an infant," she said, "but we're growing up."

Number of people living downtown: 25,000
Metro area: 4.7 million
Convention center: Georgia World Congress Center, 1.3 million square feet of exhibit space
Downtown attractions: Georgia Aquarium, World of Coke (new building in 2007), Inside CNN, Imagine It (the children's museum of Atlanta)
Sports venues: Philips Arena, Georgia Dome, Turner Field, Atlanta Motor Speedway
Source: Central Atlanta Progress, Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau
Number of people living downtown: 10,000
Metro area: 1.5 million
Convention center: Charlotte Convention Center, 280,000 square feet of exhibit space
Downtown attractions: NASCAR hall of fame (2009 or 2010), Discovery Place, Levine Museum of the New South, ImaginOn, North Carolina Blumental Performing Arts Center
Sports venues: Charlotte Bobcats Arena, Bank of America Stadium, Lowe's Motor Speedway
Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority