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Gen Con threatens to move convention if Gov. Mike Pence signs religious freedom bill
The organizers of Gen Con, the city's largest convention in attendance and economic impact, are threatening to move the event elsewhere if Gov. Mike Pence signs controversial religious freedom legislation that could allow business owners to refuse services to same-sex couples.
"Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years," said Adrian Swartout, owner and CEO of Gen Con LLC, in a letter sent to Pence just hours after lawmakers sent the measure to his desk.
Gen Con's website describes the convention as "the original, longest-running, best-attended gaming convention in the world!" The conference attracted 56,000 people last year to the Indiana Convention Center and has an annual economic impact of more than $50 million, Swartout said in the letter.
"Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds," she wrote. "We are happy to provide an environment that welcomes all, and the wide-ranging diversity of our attendees has become a key element to the success and growth of our convention."
Gen Con is under contract to hold the conference in Indianapolis through 2020. Conference spokeswoman Stacia Kirby said there are no plans to break the contract. But the state's adoption of the measure would factor into future decisions, she said.
Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communication for Visit Indy, the city's tourism bureau, said the organization took a position weeks ago against the bill.
Gahl said Gen Con told Visit Indy about the letter before releasing it publicly. He said no other current clients have expressed concern but potential clients have emailed asking about the bill.
"Our concern is that there could be a misperception with this bill that doesn't paint a picture of being a warm, welcoming, hospitable place," Gahl said. "It doesn't align with the brand that is Indianapolis, and for that matter, Indiana. Because it could impact our ability to win convention business down the road — and keep convention business — we raised our hand and said we do have a concern."
Gahl noted, however, that 19 other states have a similar law, including Illinois. Chicago, Gahl said, is a top competitor of Indy's convention business.
The NCAA men's Final Four will be in Indianapolis next week. The NCAA also puts on the March Madness Music Festival, which includes the band Bleachers, whose lead singer, Jack Antonoff, has been outspoken in support of gay marriage.
"We are examining the details of this bill, however, the NCAA national office is committed to an inclusive environment," said a statement from the Indy-based organization.
Pence, who has said he intends to sign the measure, was undeterred by Gen Con's letter.
"The Governor has been clear on where he stands on this issue and we don't have anything to add at this time," spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.
Senate Bill 101 would prevent state and local governments from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion unless the government can prove it has a "compelling interest" and is doing so in the "least restrictive" means.
Supporters say the measure would protect people and business owners with strong religious beliefs from government intrusion.
Opponents say it would license discrimination, particularly against gays and lesbians. They are mounting a last ditch effort to persuade Pence to change his mind.
The letter from Gen Con is similar to one last week from Salesforce, which said the measure could impact the company's decision to continue growing in Indiana.
The Republican-controlled Indiana Senate gave the measure final approval Tuesday afternoon on a 40-10 vote along party lines.
Call Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081.