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​Market boycott due to LGBT law could hurt N.C.'s economy

HIGH POINT, N.C. - Furniture retailer Ron Werner usually spends $2 million a year at North Carolina's gargantuan, semiannual furniture market, but he's skipping this week's event.

Werner knows not attending the High Point Market will mean missing an early look at new trends that could get hot later on, translating to big sales for his own business. But he said the state left him little choice when it passed a law last month that critics say discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

North Carolina faces backlash for "anti-discrimination" law 02:12

"The state just came out with this nasty and mean-spirited law that provides for state-sanctioned discrimination," he said. "How do we jump on a plane and go to North Carolina? They put up a sign that says, 'Gay? Stay away.' "

Some fear that Werner's decision might start a wave that could damage a tradition of commerce that brings an estimated $5 billion a year in economic activity to North Carolina. About 75,000 buyers and sellers from around the world usually cram into this traditional furniture city of 100,000 every six months for a five-day spend-a-thon. This year, however, the High Point Market's organizers are warning that thousands of attendees could skip the event, which starts Saturday.

The market remains vibrant after 107 years because it's still less expensive for exhibitors than shows in Las Vegas, Dallas or Milan, said T. William Lester, a city and regional planning professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored a 2013 study on the market's economic impact.

But an extended boycott could "whittle away the competitiveness of the built-up advantage that High Point has," Lester said.

Lester noted that furniture purchased from manufacturers within 75 miles of the city accounts for about half of the market's $5 billion economic impact. A 5 percent drop in market sales could translate into a loss of more than $100 million for North Carolina furniture manufacturers, which employ about 14,000 workers.

"These are jobs that are really difficult to grow at new companies and we want to hold onto these manufacturing jobs as much as possible," he said. "These are solid, middle-income jobs for people who don't have an advanced degree."

The state's tourism industry also stands to suffer.

Werner said he canceled a five-day reservation of a four-bedroom private home he'd rented for his five-person team -- at a cost of $2,700 -- and adds he won't be entertaining at the High Point restaurant he has frequented for years.

If only 2,000 of the estimated 58,000 out-of-town market visitors like Werner stay away from High Point, it could mean a loss of about $15 million in lodging, food and other tourism-related spending, Lester said.

N.C. governor signs executive order altering controversial HB2 law 02:10

The boycott is one of a number of protests spurred by the new North Carolina law enacted last month, which directs transgender people to use public toilets corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The law also excludes LGBT people from state anti-discrimination protections, blocks local governments from expanding LGBT protections, and bars all types of workplace discrimination lawsuits from state courts.

Supporters describe the law as a common-sense policy that keeps male sexual molesters from posing as transgender women to filter into female toilets and locker rooms.

Werner, co-owner of three HW Home stores in the Denver area, said instead of the North Carolina market, he'll visit producers in California and attend a smaller furniture market in Las Vegas in July as he shops for furnishings to tempt his customers. He suspects his absence from High Point will be barely missed by furniture-makers, but "there's business that we would have done that is not going to happen."

A fellow boycotter, furniture retailer Claus Ihlemann, said by skipping the market this month, he will miss discovering new vendors to supply Decorum Furniture, his contemporary furniture store in Norfolk, Virginia.

Nonetheless, he said, "I do think in speaking up and speaking your conscience, you're starting a lot of conversations and you're making people think about what is right or wrong."

While dozens of retailers, interior designers and other buyers said they will stay away, no major furniture-makers announced scrapping plans to show off their new products. And of the dozens of manufacturers contacted by The Associated Press, none said they would boycott the market.

Any boycott's effects won't be known until after the event, when registered no-shows are tallied against last-minute drop-ins, High Point Market Authority spokeswoman Ashley Grigg said. Exhibitors don't share sales information that can be compared to previous markets, she said.

Gov. Pat McCrory has downplayed any boycott, the effects of which were also not readily apparent earlier this week as trucks loaded with furnishings began arriving at already-rented and rebuilt exhibitor spaces. Police officers guided arriving truckers to waiting areas until spots opened at loading docks. Movers carried sofas and tables into showrooms. Thousands of carpenters and other tradesmen were swarming to complete displays incorporating the work of sign artists, woodworkers and photographers.

Three blocks from the market center, blue-collar workers streamed into Oscar's Fine Foods for some of the best burgers in town, and furniture companies were calling in big delivery orders for workers who couldn't spare time for lunch.

Debbie Lockhart's father started the restaurant 54 years ago when surrounding manufacturing plants and hosiery mills were humming. Now that furniture is made primarily in Asia, about 60 percent of Lockhart's annual sales come in the two months around each of the year's two market meetings.

"That's how we survive," Lockhart said. "It helps tremendously, because everything's moved out of here."

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