We opened eyes in Greenville eight years ago when the BI-LO Center hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Imagine how impressed those visitors would be next year or the year after, when the tournament is expected to expand to 96 teams and needs more of those opening weekend venues.
Eight years ago, the BI-LO Center was packed with basketball fans, games were compelling and visitors were impressed.
Back then, out-of-towners had no clue what kind of city Greenville was becoming. Most of us who live in Greenville didn't realize what we were about to become, either.
Liberty Bridge, the spectacular span that allows people to walk over the Reedy River and soak in the view of the falls, wasn't completed eight years ago. Fluor Field, the replica Fenway Park gem at the West End hadn't been constructed, and the number of first-class restaurants and hotels downtown were much fewer in number.
In 2002, Greenville was a good host city. When the tournament is expanded, it will become a great host city, except for one thing. Because nobody wants to initiate a conversation about resolving the Confederate flag issue -- the elephant in the room that bars most NCAA events from the state -- we are stuck in the past, fighting amongst ourselves while our elected officials and their various scandals and displays of ill-mannered public behavior define us in the public eye.
No sense in going through the whole thing again; let's just say the flag's present location on the statehouse grounds in Columbia remains a contentious issue, to the point that the NCAA will not schedule athletic events in this state until it's resolved.
"Our location is ideal," said BI-LO Center general manager Roger Newton. "From Knoxville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Atlanta, we're centrally located, an easy drive and people love spending time and money in Greenville.
"I am told the NCAA loved being here, but we have this flag issue to deal with," he said. "In today's numbers, we're talking about an economic impact of something in excess of $5 million over a weekend, but if you think in statewide terms over, say, 10 years, the (NCAA sanctioned) events we could attract would be many times that, the jobs would be counted in the thousands. We're shut out because of the flag issue."
It's an image that works against all the good things the state has going for it -- like the renewal of downtown Greenville.
People on both sides of the flag issue have their points to make, but as long as the controversy persists, the heated rhetoric will continue to damage the state and its people -- on both sides of the issue.
This is where the state needs someone to stand up and begin to wrestle this issue until it submits and goes away.
It is a difficult issue, and no suggestion is being offered here that it will make it go away overnight.
But it needs to go away, if not for reasons of common sense, for millions of visitor dollars that would pour into the state and the thousands of jobs that can be created.
Whose purpose is served by chasing away millions of dollars and all those jobs?
"Nobody has come to me yet," Newton said when asked if he has had discussions about the flag issue. "It's out there. I feel it; people know about it, but nobody has come forward, not yet."
Doing nothing keeps us tied to the past, mired in stubborn antagonism.
Anybody want to help solve a problem and create jobs statewide?
We're still waiting.