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Mixed corporate reaction to new arena luxury boxes

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The true test of how much Charlotte, in particular corporate Charlotte, wants a new NBA arena is yet to come. To make the new arena a financially healthy reality, corporate leaders will have to find buyers for about 70 luxury suites, 2,500 club seats, as well as regular seats. The relative difficulty of this task in the current, post-9/11 economy hasn't been publicly discussed very much in the dash to put a new $250 million arena uptown. So far, the NBA hasn't said publicly whether or when it will expect Charlotte to carry on a ticket drive before the deal to locate an expansion team here is finalized, although the question has been asked. But sometime in the next 18 months, corporate arm-twisters will have to start marketing high-end accommodations at the new arena. The need for more luxury suites -- there are only 12 in the current coliseum -- was what sparked the push for a new arena in the first place. Without dozens of luxury suites, it's difficult for team owners to make profit.

For more than a year, business leaders like Nelson Schwab, the Charlotte businessman who has led the effort to bring a new team and a new arena to Charlotte, have assured the NBA that they could sell the luxury suites and high-end seats.

Few have questioned their ability to do so. Although fickle, Charlotte sports fans have proven their ability and willingness to spend money on sports they're interested in. The Charlotte Hornets played before sold-out crowds during most of the first decade they played here. Of the 158 suites at Ericsson Stadium, 145 are currently leased on a long-term basis. Phil Youtsey, director of sales for the Panthers, says companies pay an average of $73,000 a year to lease a suite, and are required to sign six-to-12-year contracts. In addition, the team requires an initial deposit of about $73,000 to secure a suite. Youtsey was unwilling to release a list of who owns the suites at Ericsson Stadium.

While the high number of leased suites at Ericsson bodes well for the new arena, there's a catch. Most of those suites were leased in a roaring economy marked by lavish corporate spending and a bloated stock market that seemed to be going nowhere but up. Selling luxury suites and pricey club tickets in a post-Sept. 11 world of corporate layoffs, diminishing interest in professional sports and NBA fatigue could be a far greater challenge. Not an impossible one, but one that will nonetheless test the mettle of the city's boosters like never before.

To get a taste of what they'll be up against, Creative Loafing contacted the city's largest employers and asked them if they'd be willing to purchase a luxury suite, club seats or regular tickets at the new arena. To select these businesses, we used the Charlotte Chamber's list of the city's 73 largest employers. The 50 businesses we contacted were at the top of the list and employed 750 or more people. Of those businesses, 30 responded.

Some interesting trends quickly developed. Without exception, each of the company representatives we talked to told CL their company had not been previously contacted by anyone about buying tickets or luxury suites. Only one company, Wachovia, was willing to publicly commit to leasing a luxury suite. Six other companies including Bank of America, Duke Energy, BellSouth Telecommunications, Allen Tate Co., the Charlotte Observer and Coca-Cola Bottling Company, expressed interest in possibly purchasing a suite but wanted to see more information about pricing first.

The representative of two companies, Carolinas Healthcare System and McDonald's, spoke generously about their support for an arena but managed to say nothing about whether they planned to support it financially, no matter how many ways the reporter asked the question.

The representatives of 17 of the companies said their company would not lease a luxury suite, although five of the companies expressed some level of interest in buying tickets.

Off the record, however, many of those who expressed interest in some kind of financial support for the arena expressed concern about the economy and said their decision would likely depend on what suites and tickets cost.

What Top Charlotte Businesses Said15,000-19,999 Employees

Wachovia "Wachovia is in support of an uptown arena with premium seating." Says Wachovia plans to purchase a luxury suite. -- Christy Phillips, Corporate Communications

10,000-14,999 Employees

Bank of America "As far as purchasing any skyboxes, we don't have any formulized plans, but we support the arena." -- Jennifer Tice, Corporate Communications

Carolinas Healthcare System "There are so many variables involved in this issue. Until we see an actual proposal, there is no way to tell if Carolinas Healthcare System would be interested." -- Scott White, Spokesman

5,000-9,999 Employees

Duke Energy Corporation "Duke Energy has a box in Ericsson Stadium and would consider purchasing a suite in a new arena. Price is an issue in our decision to purchase a suite. We would be looking for something comparable to the price at Ericsson and befitting of the Charlotte market." -- Randy Wheeless

Presbyterian Healthcare/Novant Health "We are a not for profit business, so we will not be buying luxury suites anywhere." --Katie Everett, Spokesperson

US Airways "Obviously, because of our financial situation we would not be budgeting for a suite this year, and probably not next year, either. It's something we will not be doing." --John Tingle, Spokesperson

3,000 to 4,999 Employees

Ruddick/Harris Teeter "I can s ay that in 13 years, we never had a skybox with the Hornets. That is not part of our sponsorship program." -- Jessica Graham, Corporate Relations Manager

Solectron Technology, Inc. "I would have to say no because we have downsized recently and the company is not spending money on things such as that right now. It would be nice, though." --Carol Hartman, Human Resources

Winn Dixie "I don't know what the status of our involvement will be. I don't think we own any suites elsewhere. --Teresa Macrush, Spokesperson1,500-2,999 Employees

Allstate Insurance Company "Purchasing a luxury suite is something we are not interested in at this time." --Arnold Lewis, NC Human Relations Manager

Belk "I don't know if it will be a luxury suite but we will support the arena in some way." --Steve Pernotto, Executive Vice President

BellSouth Telecommunications "Once we know what the options involved in a luxury suite are we will proceed in making a decision. We just need to know what they will offer before we make a decision." --Clifton Metcalf, Spokesperson

Compass Group No Comment. --Katie Miller, Spokesperson

Family Dollar Stores, Inc. "Family Dollar Stores has no interest at all in purchasing a luxury suite in a new uptown arena." --Jan Burris, Assistant Secretary of the Corporation

Food Lion "Generally those types of things don't fit our business structure. The supermarket business is one where there are really small margins. We try to keep our costs down as well." --Jeff Lorantz, Spokesperson

IBM Charlotte "We do not have any plans, at this time, for a luxury suite in the new arena." --Debra Gottheimer, Corporate Communications

Lance "In all likelihood I'm sure we'll buy tickets." The company won't be buying a luxury suite. --Paul Stroup, President and CEO

McDonald's "We haven't been approached by anyone about it. I don't know. It would have to be a decision by the owner operators and corporate collectively." --Blair Primis, Marketing Supervisor

Sprint PCS "I don't think that's something that we can support at this time." --Misty Otto, Public Relations Analyst

Wal-Mart "No, we wouldn't be interested." --Dianna Norman, Spokesperson with Wal-Mart public relations.

1,000-1,499 Employees

AllenTate How many suites or tickets we buy will be determined by what they cost." --Pat Riley, President

The Charlotte Observer On luxury suites: "We certainly would consider it." --John Luby, Senior Vice President and General Manager

EDS "In the past we've always had (tickets) with the Panthers and Hornets but definitely not a luxury suite. We would consider, based on the price associated with it and the terms of the agreement. Can you get out of it? Is it a three-year deal or a five-year deal?" --Jerry Macek, Business Planning Manager

J.A. Jones Services "We had PSLs for four seats at the corporate level for the Hornets. We would anticipate doing the same at the new arena." The company has no plans to purchase a luxury suite. --Elaine Helms, Corporate Communications Manager

Yellow Freight System, Inc. "We will not be buying a suite. We might look at tickets but we had tickets to the Hornets in the past and gave them up two years ago because we weren't getting any use out of them." -- Steve Trebeau, Area Vice President

750-999 Employees

Clariant Corporation "As far as a suite, we just don't have that kind of a need. Depending on the price, we might buy tickets. We had 16 Hornets season tickets." -- Connie Knight, Director of Communication

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated "We're looking into it but have not made a decision." -- Lauren Steele, Vice President for corporate affairs.

BB&T "I cannot say for sure right now without an established arena plan and the economy in the shape it is in." -- Garrett Thompson, Regional President -- TARA SERVATIUS AND ADAM HYATT

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