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Bobcats had to take the show on the road

As April Fools Day dawned, the Charlotte Bobcats’ playoff aspirations were, for the first time in the franchise’s short history, no joke. The team was just a game behind the Chicago Bulls for the final playoff spot in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference. But the improvement wasn’t just in the standings. The Bobcats, after struggling five years to attract fans, had sold out the two previous games. Problem was, only two of the team’s final eight games — and none of the last four — would be in Charlotte.

It mattered because the team’s record is much better at home. The Bobcats split those last two games at the arena — one a sellout and the other, with playoff hopes fading and fans recovering from UNC Chapel Hill’s basketball championship the night before, only 3,000 short — to finish with a 23-18 record at home. The playoff dream died at an away game at Oklahoma City on Good Friday.

Chalk up the untimely road trip in part to the other area in which the team has struggled — the bottom line. Majority owner Bob Johnson, whose Bobcats Basketball Holdings LLC operates the city-owned Time Warner Cable Arena, claims $50 million in losses since he spent $300 million for the franchise in 2003. That increases pressure on the parent company to fill the arena as often as possible. It scheduled two special events there in the last two weeks of the season: Playhouse Disney Live! On Tour and the Charlotte Jumper Classic, a horse competition started by Johnson, whose daughter is an equestrian.

That meant the NBA, when it made this season’s schedule last spring, had to work around those events. As it turned out, it reduced the chances of the team having home games when it most needed them and fan interest was at its height. “The dates the franchise is lacking are potentially among the highest-yield dates in the season,” says Max Muhleman, principal of Charlotte-based Private Sports Consulting Inc. and a former marketing consultant for the Bobcats.

But Bobcats President Fred Whitfield says the company must balance basketball needs against its responsibility to use the arena, paid for through a hotel-occupancy tax, to bring business to downtown hotels and restaurants. Many events — the horse competition, for example — are part of a larger circuit, which limits the company’s ability to move dates. But it’s trying to prevent a repeat of this year’s hoops schedule and has made the last game of the season one of three priority dates for home games next year. “Hopefully, we’ll get a much more favorable draw from the league and have more games in April.”

CHARLOTTEGMAC will expand here, adding 200 jobs over the next two years. That will bring the total to about 465. The Detroit-based financial-services provider was attracted by the pool of talent in the industry. The new jobs will pay an average of $96,124 a year.

CHARLOTTE — Faced with declining advertising revenue, The Charlotte Observer said it would lay off 82 full- and part-time workers, 14.6% of its work force. The elimination of 60 full-time positions leaves it with 615.

CHARLOTTECarolina Paperboard mill closed, putting 111 out of work. It had been idle since December. Parent Caraustar Industries, based in Austell, Ga., blamed slack demand.

KANNAPOLIS — Albemarle native Michael Luther, 52, became the first president of David H. Murdock Research Institute, the foundation that owns the main laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus. He had been vice president of basic research at Merck Frosst Canada, part of drug maker Merck.

CHARLOTTECarolinas HealthCare System lost $551 million last year on revenue of $4.5 billion, largely because its investments lost value. Operating income fell 54% to $72.8 million, partly because of higher interest costs. Even so, it plans to spend $1.7 billion on 60 major capital projects in five years.

CONCORD — The state approved a $264 million expansion and renovation of Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast, part of Carolinas HealthCare System. About 425,000 square feet will be added for a total of 1.8 million.

CHARLOTTECharlotte/Douglas International Airport and 10 other of the 30 largest U.S. airports fail to meet federal requirements that runways be surrounded by sufficient buffer zones. It’s working on a solution for one runway; another may undergo an environmental review.

MOUNT HOLLY — The state denied Gaston Memorial Hospital’s request to build a $21.9 million free-standing emergency department. The hospital appealed.