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For over 15 years, the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina Statehouse didn't just stir emotions — it became an economic roadblock for a state hampered by one of the highest jobless rates in the country.
Prominent organizations such as the NAACP and the NCAA instituted boycotts in response to the flag’s prominent display on government grounds.
But on Friday, with the rebel banner’s removal from the Capitol for the first time since the civil rights movement, state and business leaders have a message to those who may have deliberately spurned South Carolina: Come back.
"As employers continue to work to recruit talented and diverse employees in South Carolina, removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds will be good for business growth and job creation," said Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.
While the financial returns remain to be seen, business leaders are already hoping for a noticeable impact with the presumed return of college-level sports tournaments to the state.
Since 2001, South Carolina has been banned from hosting any pre-selected NCAA events because of the fury over the Confederate battle flag. The last event was in Greenville, where two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were played in 2002 — a location that had been agreed upon before the moratorium was enacted.
During that time, North Carolina cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh have benefited from the influx of business that comes along with hosting multi-day sporting events.
But with the Confederate flag’s removal, NCAA Board of Governors Chairman Kirk Schulz said that he’s open to South Carolina bidding to host future tournaments, including March Madness events that would pump millions of dollars into local economies.
"There will be plenty of cities thrilled to have an NCAA tournament come to town," said Frank Knapp Jr., the co-founder and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. "Maybe some tourist attractions will see a bit of a bump and some hotels will get convention business."
The NAACP plans to introduce a resolution Saturday during its national convention in Philadelphia that would lift its boycott of South Carolina, in place since 2000. The group has refused to bring any business to the state and called on families to vacation elsewhere.
Just how deep a financial impact the loss of potential business has had on the state is not clear. When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was campaigning last fall for re-election, she said that "not a single CEO" had complained about the Confederate battle flag when she was trying to lure more businesses to the state.
Over the years, major corporations such as Boeing haven't been deterred by the flag, setting up shop in South Carolina and expanding manufacturing. Volvo announced in May it will open its first U.S. car plant in the state — adding thousands of jobs and billions of dollars annually to the state's economy, officials have said.
But Knapp said more needs to be done after South Carolina's economy sputtered following the recession of 2007. The unemployment rate in the state was 6.8 percent in May — only Nevada, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., were higher, according to federal labor data.
While the removal of the Confederate flag is a start to healing emotional rifts, Knapp said, the state isn't necessarily going to reap huge financial gains that can turn around South Carolina's fortunes overnight.
"The business community is very much in favor of what has transpired at the State Capitol," Knapp said. "But we still have areas of South Carolina that are just desperately poor. Taking down the flag is not going to fix that."