Currituck's tourism chief defends contract with lawmaker
By Jon Hawley
Sunday, July 29, 2018
CURRITUCK — Currituck's tourism director is defending the county's sponsorship agreement with state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, despite some county commissioners questioning the value of the deal and the perceptions that come with hiring a state lawmaker.
The Currituck-sponsored “Battle in the Blue Ridge” NCAA tournament offers the county valuable “nationwide exposure,” Tourism Director Tameron Kugler said in an email on Friday.
In the email, Kugler offers her account of how Currituck decided to pay the WolfeStein Group, owned by Steinburg, to secure naming rights to the tournament scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend. The sponsorship cost the county $50,000, and was approved without being presented to county commissioners.
That's normal for promotional contracts, Currituck officials have said, but Commissioners Paul Beaumont, Mike Hall and Kitty Etheridge claim County Manager Dan Scanlon should have advised them the county was doing business with a state lawmaker. The three commissioners said they should have been made aware of a contract that could create perceptions of a quid pro quo, or at least buying favor, with Steinburg, who represents Currituck in the General Assembly.
Commissioners Marion Gilbert and Bob White also said they didn't know about Steinburg's involvement in the sponsorship agreement, though board Chairman Bobby Hanig and Vice Chairman Mike Payment have said they did.
Beaumont, Hall and Etheridge have also expressed skepticism about the deal's merits; Beaumont and Etheridge have suggested the universities scheduled to participate in the tourney aren’t good tourism targets for Currituck.
In her email, Kugler said Steinburg first approached the Currituck Tourism Department about sponsoring a basketball tournament in 2016. The tournament would have been played in Ohio — a “feeder market for Currituck,” she said — but the teams being considered weren't in feeder or emerging markets, she said.
“After discussion with tourism staff, we declined this opportunity,” Kugler said.
Steinburg approached the tourism office again in fall of 2017, proposing a basketball tournament that would be played in Asheville. Kugler said she decided the tournament would be a “good marketing effort” for the county because North Carolina is “our number-one market” and the teams being considered were within target markets.
“We could not buy this kind of coverage at this price on the open market” and it would promote Currituck in a new format, a televised sporting event, Kugler said.
The universities competing in the tournament are the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Arkansas State, Eastern Illinois and Gardner-Webb. Kugler shared web traffic for the markets in which each team is located — an indication of how much exposure Currituck might get at the tournament.
Kugler reported the Charlotte metropolitan statistical area, which includes Gardner-Webb, yielded 54,614 unique site visits in the last two years — “number six overall for that time period,” she said. That's followed by Eastern Illinois' market, which generated just over 17,000 visits and UNC-Wilmington, which generated about 7,900.
Arkansas State has generated only 1,723 visits. Kugler called that an “outlier, but a good opportunity to test a new market.”
Asked if tourism board members had approved the contract, Kugler said the Tourism Advisory Board doesn't vote on contracts, but said the opportunity had been discussed and “board members should be aware of it.”
Emails Kugler shared of Steinburg's 2017 proposal show it was handled at the staff level.
Kugler also said she is satisfied so far with Steinburg's work on the tournament. Ticket prices were finalized on July 23 and tickets will be available for purchase on Friday. The tournament's website is also up and running, she noted.
Kugler's account of how the sponsorship came to be meshes with statements by Hanig, Payment and Steinburg. Steinburg has been adamant he's offered a good value to Currituck, and sought no special favor from the county.
Steinburg also said he cleared approaching Currituck with a state legislative ethics official, Erika Churchill.
Churchill said in an interview last week she couldn't recall exactly when Steinburg contacted her about the sponsorship deal. However, she said it had to be before the WolfeStein contract was signed, which was Dec. 7. That's because legislative staff only provide ethical opinions on lawmakers' business arrangements before they're entered into, she said.
Churchill also said that Steinburg's sponsorship business could require him to recuse himself from votes in the General Assembly that could pose conflicts of interest.