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Currituck pays Steinburg $50K to promote tourney

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Currituck County has paid a private company owned by state Rep. Bob Steinburg $50,000 to promote and market an NCAA basketball tournament the county is sponsoring in Asheville this fall called the “Battle in the Blue Ridge.”

Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon and Steinburg signed the sponsorship deal in December, after Steinburg, R-Chowan, approached county officials about sponsoring the tournament through his company, the WolfeStein Group, both men said in interviews Wednesday.

Currituck officials also said county commissioners were aware of and supported the deal, but they did not formally vote on it, nor did the county solicit competitive proposals.

Steinburg explained the origins of his company and how the deal with Currituck came about. He said he's long had a passion for college basketball — one of his sons, Bob Steinburg Jr., is a college coach, he noted — and he formed the WolfeStein Group in early 2017 to set up tournaments and find sponsors for them. He said the “Wolfe” in WolfeStein refers to a man no longer involved in the company, but he's not undertaken the process to change the name.

In approaching Currituck about sponsoring a tournament, Steinburg said he believed it would be a great benefit to the county. Myrtle Beach, for instance, sponsors similar events, even in other states. Though the event will be held in Asheville, Steinburg said it would be broadly promoted on social media, including by the participating teams. He wasn't sure Wednesday how broadly the tournament would be televised.

Steinburg strongly rejected any suggestion of impropriety or a quid pro quo with the deal, given he asked one of the counties he represents in the state House to contract with him. Being a state lawmaker is a part-time job and lawmakers are allowed to hold other jobs, he said.

Steinburg said he cleared the potential arrangement with state ethics officials before approaching Currituck last year.

“Everything is above board,” Steinburg said. “If it had been problematic, I never would have done it.”

Scanlon said Steinburg's request went through Currituck's tourism board, and Currituck vetted his proposal as it would any other. That included review by County Attorney Ike McRee, based on an “action history” Currituck provided with the contract.

Scanlon also said he made county commissioners aware of the contract, and he had authority to approve it without a formal vote.

Asked why Currituck didn't seek bids for the promotion, Scanlon explained Currituck was responding to an offer Steinburg made. It wasn't seeking tournament sponsorships, but it found Steinburg's proposal had merit.

“This is actually a very good value for the exposure we're getting,” Scanlon said, adding that simply purchasing television, radio and other similar marketing would've cost far more than $50,000.

The agreement between WolfeStein and Currituck provides that, in exchange for $50,000, WolfeStein will provide various promotional services. It will secure naming rights to the event. The full name of the tournament in fact is the “Visitcurrituckobx.com Battle in the Blue Ridge.” The full name is to be used in all media mentions of the tournament, the agreement notes, as well as on the event's logo.

The tournament will also advertise Currituck before and during the tournament, and WolfeStein will, in the months before the tournament, promote it on social media, promote it to local networks and national networks including ESPN, and, according to the contract, will pursue “aggressive ticket sales and marketing campaign to help ensure large crowds.”

Currituck agreed to pay WolfeStein $16,000 when the contract was approved and the remaining $34,000 on Jan. 3 of this year, according to the contract. 

Scanlon said Wednesday he's satisfied so far with how WolfeStein has promoted the tournament. He encouraged people to check out the tournament online at battleintheblueridge.com.

Currituck Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig and board Vice Chairman Mike Payment said Wednesday they were aware of, and supported, the county’s sponsorship deal with Steinburg.

Hanig said Steinburg spoke to him about the sponsorship proposal. Hanig said it sounded like a good idea, but he asked Steinburg to propose it directly to tourism officials.

Asked about perceptions Currituck might be attempting to cultivate favor with a state lawmaker, Hanig responded “I totally disagree with that.”

“There's nothing to perceive,” he said.

Asked for his recollection of the sponsorship, Payment said Steinburg had approached commissioners “a few years ago” about a potential sponsorship. That event was proposed in Ohio and didn't match the demographics the county wanted to target, Payment said. He said tourism officials determined the Asheville event was a better fit. He said he didn't know how they reached that decision.

Asked about the perception that, by granting Steinburg the contract, Currituck might be trying to curry favor with the lawmaker, Payment denied that it is.

“We knew Steinburg was the owner two years ago, and we turned him down,” Payment said.

Asked about Payment's recollection, Steinburg reiterated WolfeStein was formed in early 2017. The N.C. Secretary of State's website confirms the company was formed on Jan. 30, 2017.

Currituck Commissioner Bob White, who serves on Currituck’s Tourism Advisory Board, said Wednesday that he “didn't know anything about” the county’s deal with Steinburg.

Currituck Tourism Director Tameron Kugler could not be reached for comment Wednesday, nor could an ethics spokesman with the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

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