At least one large-scale buyer pulls out as opposition to HB2 puts a “dent” in the biannual High Point furniture market, although the showrooms remain busy. Many buyers and industry representatives express revulsion to the law, while expressing optimism about the prospects for repeal.
Some weren’t familiar with the new law and others didn’t care, but most of buyers, exhibitors and other visitors on the first day of the spring furniture market in High Point expressed disappointment in HB2 while emphasizing support for the market.
Jonathan Mora, a representative of the Italian furniture manufacturer Bontempi, maintained a cautiously upbeat attitude as he surveyed the brisk foot traffic from his company’s exhibition space within the gargantuan International Home Furnishings Center on April 16, opening day of the market.
“People are upset,” he said. “It looks normal. There are a small number of people who have said they aren’t coming. There are folks who have faith it will be fixed.”
The biannual market typically attracts about 75,000 visitors from around the world, almost doubling the population of the city of 104,371.
Mora expressed faith that Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed HB2, is working on a plan to make the new law more palatable. McCrory signed HB2, which overturned Charlotte’s ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their preference while barring cities from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances and from mandating a minimum wage higher than the state standard. HB2 also establishes a statewide anti-discrimination law that does not include protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and prevents people from using the state courts to pursue discrimination claims.
A decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding gender identity as a protected class on Tuesday places HB on uncertain legal ground.
McCrory later issued an executive order that includes protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity for state employees, while asking the General Assembly to overturn the ban on pursuing discrimination claims in state courts. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, McCrory refused to budge on the core provision of HB2 mandating that people must use the bathroom of the gender listed on their birth certificate in multi-occupant facilities in public schools and other public agencies.
Newell Turner, editor-in-chief of Hearst Design Group — publisher of House Beautiful, Elle Décor, Veranda and Metropolitan Home — wore a rainbow flag pin to express his opposition to HB2 on the first day of the market. He emphasized that he was speaking only for himself and not his company.
“I think it’s a serious issue,” he said. “It’s a North Carolina state issue. This is an international market. While I don’t believe in HB2, I can’t imagine not coming here. I don’t think that’s appropriate not to do business in North Carolina.”
Felipe Hernandez, a Charlotte-based buyer who was visiting the market on behalf of a retailer in Austin, remarked that foot traffic was the lowest he’s ever seen. He said he’s “completely against” HB2.
Hernandez said he understands why companies and entertainers from outside the state feel the need to take a principled stand by not doing business in North Carolina.
“I think they need to put the pressure on so they can change the law,” he said. “It’s affecting everyone. It’s major income.
“It’s discrimination,” Hernandez added. “Let’s call it what it is — discrimination, plain and simple.”
In late March, the High Point Market Authority warned that dozens of customers had informed the agency that they were canceling plans to attend the market.
“As leaders and organizers of the High Point Market, we feel an obligation to inform the public and our government leaders in Raleigh of the significant economic damage that HB2 is having on the High Point Market and on the North Carolina economy,” a statement from the market authority read. “Based on the reaction in just the last few days, hundreds and perhaps thousands of our customers will not attend market this April.”
Mitchell Gold, co-owner of the Taylorsville-based furniture-maker Mitchell Gold+Bob Williams, said a regularly scheduled dinner his company hosts for independent retailers was “crowded, but not packed,” adding that there’s usually an overflow. He said that Williams Sonoma and Restoration Hardware, two big retail buyers, canceled their visits to the market in opposition to HB2, accounting for a total of 42 people.
Gold said during an interview at his High Point showroom that attendance at the market was down 25 to 30 percent. Tom Conley, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority, confirmed the two cancellations in an email on Monday, but said only Williams Sonoma’s decision to not attend the market was linked to HB2. He said the market authority will not know how many people attended the market for another two weeks.
As an openly gay business leader, Gold has readily stepped forward as an opponent of HB2. Even before the current controversy over transgender rights, Gold took a vocal position in favor of marriage equality during the 2012 marriage referendum and has worked with pastors such as the Rev. Anthony Spearman to promote a message that homosexuality is not a sin. Gold gave a rousing speech against HB2 at an April 2 rally organized by clergy at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro. Along with Replacements Limited in Greensboro, Gold’s company is one of the two largest gay-owned businesses in North Carolina.
As a manufacturer whose business depends on sales, Gold said his company is likely to weather the impact of buyers choosing to not attend the market.
“We’re going to make up for it by visiting the customers and sending photos,” he said. “We’ll work it through. But it definitely has an impact. There’s fewer people going out to eat in restaurants. It’s a dent. How embarrassing for us that people don’t want to come to our state. It’s such a dark blemish on our state and our people.”
The furniture market is the largest single economic event in the state of North Carolina every year, according to a 2013 Duke University study, and some industry leaders expressed hope that the market’s clout will eventually persuade state lawmakers to come around.
“Everybody’s crossing their fingers that the [General] Assembly will do the right thing and fix the issue,” said Jonathan Mora with Bontempi.
Gold said he has invited Gov. McCrory to visit the showroom and has a phone call in to his representative in the state House.
Considering that when he was growing up, he never would have imagined that he could be married to a man or that he could be open about his sexuality as a business owner, Gold remains optimistic that HB2 will eventually be overturned, just as the previous ban on same-sex marriage was. Noting that on Sunday he was talking to one of his suppliers about transgender rights, he said considers the current controversy to be a “teachable moment.”
“I think it’s important to take a stand,” he said. “I’ve put myself out there. One could say it’s risky for a businessman to be so outspoken. The silver lining is that we’ve gotten great publicity out of this. People are talking about a boycott, but you could also talk about a buy-cott. We’re a company that has in spirit and policy a stance of inclusion towards people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. We support politicians who promote inclusion and give money to them. We’ve gotten a lot of exposure with fair-minded people. We’re having a real good month.”
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