Connie’s Chicken and Waffles was not ready for last year’s Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. Groups of at least 40 people steadily streamed into the Charles Plaza location of the chicken shop, leaving co-owner Shawn Parker and his team scrambling.
With tens of thousands of people expected downtown this week for the return of the CIAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Division II Tournament at CFG Bank Arena, Parker said he and his employees are ready.
“We needed extra team members,” Parker said. “Naturally, most folks in the restaurant industry are pretty short-staffed right now, in my opinion. We are too. But this year we’re adding at least two more people at this location and our Lexington Market location.”
Basketball fanatics and alumni may come for the games, but there will be more to experience. The festivities and games spotlight the rich tradition of fellowship and competition among Historically Black Colleges and Universities alumni in the region. There will be everything from concerts with Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick to Greek step shows and a job fair. Last year, the tournament’s first in Baltimore, generated an economic impact of $19.6 million, according to CIAA officials.
Visit Baltimore CEO and president Al Hutchinson said ticket sales and hotel occupancy statistics are “trending in a good direction,” with both figures ahead of where they stood this time last year. Eighty-two percent of the rooms at area hotels had been booked as of Friday night, a jump from 65% last year, according to the head of the city’s tourism arm.
Heavy traffic is expected in the downtown area for the duration of the tournament and associated events, running Feb. 21 through Feb. 26, the Baltimore City Department of Transportation said.
The $250 million renovation is not yet complete, but the CIAA Tournament will be the first official event at CFG Bank Arena for a soft opening.
The weekend before games tip off, construction equipment still sat directly in front of the entrance doors. The building’s new owner, the Oak View Group, is billing an April 7 concert headlined by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band as the venue’s official grand opening.
Nevertheless, Tim Leiweke, co-founder of the Oak View Group, said the arena will be ready for tip-off on Tuesday.
“We have a little bit of work left to do, fans are going to see a lot of the new arena, and it’s going to be a great experience. The court, all of the [arena] bowl, locker rooms, broadcast facilities, bathrooms and all concession stands are ready,” he wrote in an email to The Banner.
CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said she’s satisfied with the state of the arena, which hosted games last year before the start of the overhaul.
“I mean, just think about what we had last year, compared to what we have now. We have more than what we need this year. And when the building is fully available in 2024, it will be a whole other ballgame,” she said.
Twelve schools, located in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, are members of the CIAA, the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference. Bowie State University, the CIAA’s only Maryland school, will serve as the host institution of the tournament.
In 2019, the CIAA announced it was relocating the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments from Charlotte, where the conference is headquartered and the games had been played for 15 years, to Baltimore for 2021 through 2023. The 2021 edition was held as a virtual event due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Following last year’s in-person tournament, the CIAA and Visit Baltimore announced an extension through 2025. The conference and tourist organization reported that 22,000 fans attended games throughout the tournament, including 11,000 for the two championship games. The games generated $11 million in off-site spending on hotel bookings, meals at restaurants, merchandise and souvenirs, and transportation around town, according to figures from the organizations.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County economics professor Dennis Coates cautions that there are likely added expenses for the city and the facility to stage an event of this scale.
Restaurants, bars and hotels will certainly benefit from the extra business. But the event’s impact on the city’s overall economy depends on how many out-of-town visitors come to Baltimore specifically for the basketball and how much they spend, he wrote in an email to The Banner.
“Taken all together, for the city and citizens of Baltimore, the event likely has only a very modest, if any, financial impact,” Coates wrote. “However, citizens of Baltimore that attend the tournament may derive substantial enjoyment from the games which is worth more to them than the price of the tickets they purchase.”
Hutchinson said more people are expected this year now that COVID-19 numbers have declined overall and the city has aggressively marketed the opportunity to visitors.
Parker, of Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, agrees that the improvement in COVID metrics will bring out more fans.
“We’re further away from COVID, and the fact that folks are familiar with the area after the first year, I think a lot of folks that missed last year are going to try and make it this year,” he said.
Ruby Nelson, president of the Baltimore chapter of a Bowie State alumni group, remembers there being tighter COVID restrictions when the tournament was held in 2022. The weather was rainy and cold, too.
“This year, we’re mask-optional and have worked through all logistics to get folks to the different events and all the different hotels,” said Nelson, explaining that the city is offering shuttle service to more than a dozen stops throughout the entire tournament.
Though HBCUs Morgan State, Coppin State and Howard are not in CIAA, the tournament’s move to Baltimore is the chance to not only “compete on a positive level,” but engage with other HBCUs and the local community.
“CIAA represents the whole of HBCUs, and you get to see the best of the schools being presented in this tournament,” Nelson said. “So it gives us a lot of pride as fans and alumni who get to be a part of it, whether we win or lose the tournament.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.