Feedback mixed on U.S. Open's economic impact for Lee County

Reports range from 'a big flop' to better than 2005
Jun. 20, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The men's U.S. Open last week was good to hotels in Sanford, but not much else, according to multiple people in the local business community. And the women's tournament this week might not even be good for hotels.

"For the men's open, we were real busy, sold out," said Alondra Buelna, a front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn. "But we're pretty empty for the women's open. It's sad. I guess no one cares about the women."

All the major hotels in town have previously reported similar stories, of zero vacancy for the men's open but more than a few empty rooms this week, when female golfers take to the links at Pinehurst No. 2. There are fewer fans, fewer members of the media and fewer people coming to work in support industries like merchandise or catering.

And even when the city's 500 hotel rooms were full, employees reported that most people staying with them were not tourists. Most guests were reportedly workers and TV crews who had to be at the tournament every day, working long hours.

Kevin Thomas, general manager of the Sagebrush Steakhouse and Saloon, said lunch crowds were small during the men's tournament. Dinner crowds were slightly larger than usual, though, and he said the bar was especially crowded.

"It's been a late-night crowd," Thomas said. "Lots of drinkers."

And while the Sagebrush reported slightly larger crowds, another steakhouse in town with a seemingly perfect location had much worse attendance than anticipated.

Davison's Steaks, on U.S. 1 — the road that an estimated 10,000 extra people used every day during the tournament — actually lost money in the days leading up to the tournament last week, according to owner Mike Davison. And between Thursday and Sunday, he said, sales were up a measly 20 or 25 percent.

He said several things went wrong. First, officials from the state forced him to take down many of the signs he had put up on the side of the road — and spent $550 on — directing travelers to his restaurant. Second, U.S. Open officials set up an extensive transportation system to bus people straight to and from hotels in the Triangle, shooting right through Sanford.

And third, he said, the hosts simply did a good job of keeping people in Pinehurst with good food and entertainment on site. To illustrate his struggles, Davison said he distributed 1,000 coupons around town last week — but that just 12 of those 1,000 coupons had come back in the door by Wednesday afternoon.

And, he said, he's far from alone.

"It's kind of been a big flop for the whole county," Davison said. "... I don't think I'll ever get excited about a U.S. Open again."

But if Pinehurst was holding on to the dinner and lunch crowds, it couldn't accommodate all the tourists who wanted to play some golf. The main course there was, after all, in use.

That helped southern Lee County golf course Quail Ridge. Owner Carl Bunnell said that with people driving past and seeing the signs on U.S. 1 for his open-to-the-public course, and with word of mouth spreading as the tournament went on, Quail Ridge just got busier and busier.

"During the week, it wasn't as busy as I remember it being back in 2005 (the last time Pinehurst hosted the men's U.S. Open), but on the weekends it picked up," Bunnell said.

There were some other local success stories, like Watson's Nursery and Big Bloomers Flower Farm, which provided the flowers that graced one network's television broadcast set, or Hall Fence, which provided some fencing. And about 90 locals got temporary jobs at the men's tournament through the local branch of hiring agency Express Employment Professionals.

Joe Clancy, manager of that local branch, said the companies he's working with wanted fewer than 50 percent of the workers to return for the women's open this week.

"Another 40 people are getting a paycheck for another week, anyway," he said.

Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, said he had heard of several other success stories. He also said he understood that many of the smaller restaurants in town did better than expected — and that overall, he has heard positive reports.

"I haven't seen anybody's numbers yet, but my impression is that this year surpassed 2005, absolutely," Joyce said. "The feedback I've gotten from merchants in terms of enthusiasm, and shoppers opening their pocketbooks, it surpassed 2005. Now did it compare to 1999 (the previous time the U.S. Open was at Pineshurst)? I'm not sure."

Yet Sanford City Councilman Charles Taylor, who himself had a job during the men's open designing TV graphics for Fox, had a dimmer view. He said he has heard from too many business owners disappointed in their sales.

Other local businesses, Taylor said, gave an inaccurately poor impression of Sanford as a whole to travelers going past the motels and empty stores along U.S. 1 in the Tramway area. One sports radio host tweeted a mocking photo of a Sanford motel to his 10,600 online followers, for example.

He also said he was angry that every county and major city surrounding Moore County had promotional material on display at Pinehurst — except for Sanford and Lee County.

"My problem is we need to have better communication," Taylor said. "It's not a [question] of if the Open's coming back here again; it's when they come back. So we need to have a meeting of everyone who's a stakeholder and figure out what we didn't do right"