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'We have been pretty much soaring' | Cabarrus County business owners hoping tourism industry is the key to economic recovery

An annual study commissioned by Visit North Carolina showed in 2019, Cabarrus County tourism employed more than 4,600 people.

CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. — One of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic was tourism. But as more people are starting to travel, it is tourism that could help local economies rebound.

One county hoping that’s the case is Cabarrus County.

“It is one of the largest industries here,” said Donna Carpenter, President & CEO, of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

From Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord to a whiskey distillery in a former prison in Mt. Pleasant to the Cannon Ballers minor league baseball stadium in Kannapolis -- much of Cabarrus County is centered on tourism.

In fact, so much so, an annual study commissioned by Visit North Carolina showed in 2019, Cabarrus County tourism employed more than 4,600 people and generated more than $8 million in local tax revenue.

“Then, COVID hit,” Carpenter said, which devasted the industry.

Among the hardest hit were hotels, which she said lost more than $24 million in revenue and resulted in 1,400 jobs lost. But this spring, Carpenter said she has noticed a turning point.

“In particular, the actual day that the governor lifted those restrictions we have been pretty much soaring,” she said.

Among the first to rebound, she said, have been hotels and outdoor events, especially during the weekend of the Coca-Cola 600.

Not only were hotel rooms in demand, up 7% over the same weekend in 2019 but so too were tickets to the race.

RELATED: In-person Coca-Cola 600 brings boost to Concord businesses and venues

“They were prepared for about 30,000 and they told us they ended up with about 50,000,” Carpenter said.

Also seeing more demand is Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, an airport owned by the city that is part commercial, home to low-cost commercial airline carrier, Allegiant Airlines.

The airport is also open to the public and one of its biggest customers is NASCAR.

“One of our base customers here are the racing teams that support the NASCAR business,” said Dirk Vanderleest, Aviation Director for the City of Concord.

But when COVID-19 hit, the airport saw a near ground-stop. In April 2020 the airport said they saw just 105 commercial airline passengers. And as NASCAR races were canceled, so were those flights.

“They pay the rent through the aircraft that is stored in the hangars, but when there’s no race, there’s no fuel and so there’s no revenue associated with that,” Vanderleest said.

But as COVID-19 restrictions ease and as more Americans get vaccinated, Vanderleest said traffic here is picking back up.

In April of this year, the airport reported more than 21,000 passengers and also reported a jump in parking revenue from $1,200 in April 2020, to nearly $90,000 in 2021.

“I think it will take a little bit of time, another two years I think to where we’re reaching those target numbers of 2019,” Vanderleest said.

Contact Ashley Daley at adaley@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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