Cincinnati ups the ante as Charlotte hits a snag in quest for Western & Southern Open

‘We’ve come up with everything they’ve asked for’.

Charlotte’s attempt to take the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament from Mason has hit an unexpected snag in the North Carolina General Assembly, where a fight over gambling has delayed action on a state budget.

In the meantime, Cincinnati has upped the ante with a pledge by local business leaders to boost sponsorship spending if the tournament stays here.

“We have come up with everything that they’ve asked for,” said John Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group. It owns the naming rights for the annual tournament that drew nearly 200,000 fans this year and generated an estimated economic impact of $80 million.

Barrett said the Cincinnati Business Committee led an effort to increase sponsorships for the tournament’s expanded format starting in 2026. He wouldn’t say how much money was pledged, only that it’s one of many reasons he thinks Cincinnati can retain the event.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m not taking anything for granted,” Barrett said. “We’re trying to make sure that every questionable thing has answers, rather than no answers and therefore we can’t make a decision.”

There are unanswered questions aplenty in North Carolina right now, where the Republican-controlled House and Senate can’t agree on gambling provisions tucked into a two-year state budget that was supposed to be enacted by July 1.

The budget is important to Charlotte because tournament owner Beemok Capital has requested $25 million in state funding to support its $400 million River District Tennis Facility – a potential future home to the Western & Southern Open. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have pledged a combined $95 million to River District.

A spokesman for North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said the funding request is in lawmakers’ hands.

“The Governor and others in his administration met with this group and he believes they have a strong plan that would be good for the economy of North Carolina,” Jordan Monaghan said in a written response to I-Team questions. “State funding would have to be appropriated by the legislature, but they have yet to pass a budget and whether this project will eventually be funded is unclear.”

Beemok Capital declined to answer questions about the funding delays. Leaders of the North Carolina House and Senate did not return emails seeking comment.

“I wouldn’t take our foot off the worry meter,” said Jim McGraw, a corporate partner in Cincinnati’s Keating Muething & Klekamp law firm.

McGraw has advised economic development clients in Charlotte and Cincinnati and thinks they’re both heavily engaged in landing the Western & Southern Open for their cities.

“The corporate community in Charlotte is so strong,” McGraw said. “Whatever they set their mind to do financially they’re going to get it done.”

But the lack of clarity in Carolina is causing elation in Mason.

“I think they ought to keep fighting,” said Sen. Steve Wilson, R-Maineville. “I just do not wish them well in being successful.”

Wilson, retired CEO of Greater Cincinnati’s 12th largest bank, Lebanon-based LCNB Corp., was appointed to serve Ohio’s 7th District in 2017. He thinks the tournament’s local history and strong volunteer network will convince Beemok Capital that it can’t build in Charlotte what it already has in Mason.

But even if it’s only about the money, Wilson thinks Greater Cincinnati is winning because it met Beemok’s request for public subsidies to cover about a third of the cost of a $150 million that would be needed to keep the expanded tournament in Mason. Charlotte, by contrast, is covering less than 25% of Beemok’s costs with the public contributions announced to date.

“The bottom line is the state, county, the city and the business community with sponsorships, everybody’s putting their best foot forward,” Wilson said. “If they like what we’re offering them, and I think they should, then they ought to stay.”

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