Surprise! There's a bowl game in Columbia this weekend.
Benedict College is hosting the 2009 Pioneer Bowl between the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers and the Elizabeth City State University Vikings from North Carolina.
But Benedict College Athletic Director Willie Washington said the school did not know they were hosting the game until last week - after the two teams had already booked Columbia hotel rooms.
Wednesday, Washington stood before City Council asking for $15,000 to help pay for the bowl game. While council members called the short notice "irresponsible" on the part of the bowl organizers, they said they did not want to pass up an opportunity to bring in what Washington estimated to be a crowd of 10,000 to Columbia this weekend.
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Council members unanimously voted to give the college $10,000 from the city's hospitality tax contingency fund.
"These guys are coming in with money," Councilman E.W. Cromartie said of the football fans. "People are hurting, and these (fans) are going to spend more than $100 per person. With a hotel room, that's $250 to $500 per person. That's a lot of money coming into our city."
It's unclear why the game is being organized on such short notice. Officials with the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association said the teams for the bowl game, as well as its location, were announced in a Nov. 18 news release. By that date, Benedict College would have had 2 1/2 weeks to plan for the game.
Conference officials did not say how long Columbia had been chosen as the site of the game.
The game pits two teams from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference - which includes Benedict College - and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
The conferences say the game is the only NCAA-sanctioned bowl game between two historically black colleges and universities.
Lonnie Randolph, director of the S.C. NAACP, said he does not support the game coming to Columbia because it conflicts with his organization's boycott of South Carolina because of the Confederate flag flying on the State House grounds.
Washington declined to comment about the boycott.
The game was scheduled to be in Columbia last year, but Washington said it was canceled because of "administration changes" at the two conferences.
This year, he said, "They have been tossing it around, but there was no final decision. That was between the two conference commissioners. Once they made the final decision to move forward, we were involved. They gave us a call, and we would not turn them down. It's just our belief as a member of the conference, conference members should do everything they can."
Scott Powers, executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council, said he helped book hotel rooms and market the event in 2007 and in 2008 before it was canceled. Not this year.
"To be honest with you, yesterday was the first day I heard about it," Powers said. "Maybe everybody's been planning to come for a month and we didn't know about it."
The 2007 Pioneer Bowl, which featured Tuskegee and Virginia Union, attracted 7,000 people who booked more than 400 room nights at local hotels, according to Powers.
Powers said he's not sure how successful this game will be given the short preparation time, but noted Tuskegee University led the nation in attendance for NCAA Division II.
Washington said the college will use half of the $10,000 to pay for 27 police officers. The rest will go to promote the event on radio and other local media.
Council members said a week or so is not a lot of time and worried the rushed preparation might not reflect well on a city trying to encourage tourism.
"We need to make a good impression on people coming to town so they want to come back," Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. "I think it's not good practice to give the school a week's notice to pull something like this together."
But Washington said Benedict is using its staff members as unpaid volunteers for the game and is letting the conferences use its Charlie W. Johnson Football Stadium on Two Notch Road for free.
Altogether, the game will cost about $60,000, with Benedict contributing $20,000, Washington said.
The $10,000 comes from the city's hospitality taxes - the 2 cents on the dollar tax you pay every time you buy prepared food in a Columbia restaurant or from a grocery or deli.
Specifically, the money comes from the city's hospitality tax contingency fund, which began Wednesday with $124,000 but ended the day with a balance of $104,000 after City Council members committed $10,000 to Benedict College and another $10,000 to the South Carolina Hospitality Association for Restaurant Week, Jan. 11-17.
Councilwoman Belinda Gergel said she thought the city would end up making money on the bowl game because the fans would spend money in Columbia restaurants and hotels.
"Everybody wants to have more time," she said. "But I believe we have a chance to replenish the hospitality tax fund.