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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014

St. Pete Pride drawing gay tourists to Tampa Bay area


Published:   |   Updated: June 28, 2013 at 08:18 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - With 100,000 people at last year's St. Pete Pride event, the Tampa Bay area is gaining a high profile among travelers expected to come this weekend for the state's biggest gay pride festival.

Organizers have added art shows and concerts leading up to Saturday's parade and street festival in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District; adds aiming to lure tourists for the event suggest a vacation with beaches, museums and gay-friendly hotels, restaurants and bars.

Several elected officials, most notably Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, plan to participate in this year's festival, and community leaders are hopeful that gay pride events will take hold on both sides of the bay in coming years.

The goal is to demonstrate that the Tampa Bay area as a whole is welcoming for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and, hopefully, convince them to vacation here.

"I dub it as Tampa Bay's pride, not just St. Petersburg Pride," said Eric Skains, executive director of St. Pete Pride.

"We're on one side of the bridge, yes, but we reach a vast audience."

Though the Tampa Bay area ranks below Florida destinations such as Fort Lauderdale and Orlando for gay travel year-round, St. Pete Pride has grown into the state's largest pride event.

The street festival downtown on Central Avenue has grown from about 25,000 at its inception in 2002 to 100,000 last year.

About 59 percent of those people were from Pinellas County; but nearly 29 percent came here for the first time, and 8.5 percent stayed overnight in area hotels, according to a report by Research Data Services, Inc. in Tampa.

Attendees spent an estimated $5.4 million during the one-day event.

St. Petersburg has a handful of hotels and restaurants targeted toward a gay audience, including The Flamingo Resort and Entertainment Center on 34th Street South, the GayStPeteHouse bed and breakfast on Fifth Avenue North, or Georgie's Alibi bar and restaurant on Third Avenue North.

The city doesn't have a defined gay district, such as The Castro in San Francisco, Skains said.

"I think that St. Petersburg in and of itself has kind of unofficially become the gay area of Tampa Bay simply because it's such a laid-back and welcoming environment," he said.

"Anywhere you go, you can feel comfortable about being yourself without the looks and stares and all that."

The average age at last year's festival was about 44, meaning the area is drawing older visitors who are probably more apt to relax at a quiet beach rather than party all night at a nightclub, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater Executive Director D.T. Minich said.

"We promote ourselves as more of a place to come and relax, to reconnect with your significant other and have a great beach experience and do some great cultural activities," Minich said.

The festival is getting an unprecedented show of support from elected officials this year.

This is the first year the mayor and the entire St. Petersburg City Council have signed a proclamation supporting the event. Mayor Bill Foster, however, will not be walking among the wildly colored floats Saturday morning - that's a role Buckhorn will fill as the highest ranking official to walk in the parade.

With cities throughout the Tampa Bay area adopting domestic partner registries and the Hillsborough County Commission recently repealing an eight-year-old ban on supporting gay pride events, Buckhorn said showing his support for the event was the "right thing to do." Pinellas County, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Gulfport have domestic partner registries, though Hillsborough County commissioners voted against creating one in January.

"I think Tampa Bay should be known as a place that truly is open to everybody," he said.

Lifting the Hillsborough ban will almost certainly mean a new pride event will start in Tampa in coming years, said Carrie West, president of the GaYBOR District Coalition in Ybor City.

Buckhorn's participation means a lot to the gay community, said West, who helped start St. Pete Pride in 2002.

"I'm calling Bob Buckhorn the Tampa Bay mayor," West said.

City council members from St. Petersburg, Tampa, Gulfport and Largo and other elected officials will also participate in this year's parade.

St. Pete Pride events begin Wednesday in St. Petersburg and will continue through Sunday. For full event listings, go to www.stpetepride.com.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

Tribune reporter Kevin Wiatrowski contributed to this report.

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