St. Pete’s Pride Position
How business and the community rally for Florida’s largest LGBTQ celebration
A sea of people waving rainbow flags will again take over the waterfront for the 17th annual St. Pete Pride Parade, the centerpiece of a packed weekend of events June 21-23, with preliminary events June 19 and June 20, celebrating the LGBTQ+ community.
Beyond the colors, beads, sequins and feathers, the signature parade is an economic engine for the city and its tourism industry, as well as a long-lasting asset of the city’s culture to be celebrated.
Consider this: In 2003, about 10,000 people turned out for St. Petersburg’s first gay pride parade. In 2018, the parade participants and crowds along the city’s Bayshore Drive swelled to about 200,000. That makes the carnival-like event the biggest pride parade in Florida and one of the largest in the country.
For this year’s event, crowds are expected to equal 2018, with a new post-parade concert and fireworks, to draw more attendees. Parade weekend visitors spend more than $11 million, and the total economic impact is more than $22.3 million for Pinellas County, according to an independent report prepared in 2016 for St. Pete Pride, the nonprofit organization that produces the event. With approximately 12 percent of attendees being tourists, that includes more than 14,000 hotel night bookings, St. Pete Pride estimates.
More Than Numbers
“Our destination is internationally recognized as being an LGBTQ+-friendly community, and that is a very good thing to position ourselves in competing for tourism to our destination,” says Tim Ramsberger, chief operating officer of the county tourism agency, Visit St Pete/Clearwater. “The pride parade has obviously helped establish and grow that recognition and prominence. It is one of the largest events hosted in our county, annually, and it is something that we embrace and it does help our promotion of tourism.”
Over the years, the parade has blossomed into an active weekend. This year, there will be free concerts on June 21 and, following the parade on June 22 and the street festival June 23, says Luke Blankenship, St. Pete Pride’s executive director. About 50,000 people attended last year’s festival, which included 230 vendors in the Grand Central District. Blankenship expects a similar turnout this year.
“St. Pete is known for its inclusivity and its acceptance of the LGBTQ-plus community. We have such a commitment from business owners, politicians and everybody that is involved with our city, who come together in the month of June to help put on this amazing event. That’s what makes our city stand out,” Blankenship says. “Everybody looks forward to pride month—everybody is an ally and has a great time.”
Over the years, events planned before and after the parade and street festival have multiplied. For proprietors, restaurant and bar tabs have too.
St. Pete Pride helps promote more than 30 other events across Pinellas County in June, Blankenship says.
“We publish a Pride Month calendar. What’s great about it is, people come from all over and it provides people an opportunity to do what they want to do—a Pride Night with the Tampa Bay Rays, a book club, a drag show, a Christian Pride event—with so many things under the sun, everyone can find something they want to do,” he says.
Support from the business community grows stronger every year. This year’s major sponsors, again, include Tech Data, Florida’s largest public company, which sent some 700 people to march in last year’s parade. Other sponsors include WTSP-Channel 10, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Wells Fargo, StPete.org, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, SunTrust and HCA.
“We see different organizations wanting to get different things out of the events,” Blankenship says. “Some are in it for exposure and they want to market to the LGBTQ+ community, and that is fine. Some want to better the culture within their own organization and provide an event for their own people. And then there are some that want to be there for the LGBTQ+ community and do it because it is right.”
Put Wells Fargo in the “all of the above” category.
“We have been proud to be a pretty big part of it. We have been a sponsor for six years, and involved before that,” says Steve Schultz, the regional banking president for Wells Fargo, one of the Tampa Bay area’s largest employers, with 1,400 local employees. “One of the things that I love about it is, our team members love it and they show us that by showing up.”
He estimates that about 250 people show up to represent the company, whether it be team and family members, or friends.
“From a business perspective, it’s part of our business. For me, I think about [diversity] like building from our team members out and building a good, inclusive workplace inside—and being purposeful about having support inside. Our Pride Network in particular is a large network among many team member networks. If our team members feel, ‘Hey, this is a great place to work and they appreciate diversity and we can see it,’ that spills out into the community, in volunteerism, in philanthropy,” Schultz says. “Then there’s the business case for it and it all comes together.”
The events are free to the public because of corporate sponsorships like Tech Data’s and Wells Fargo’s and $52,900 in 2019 funding through the Tourist Development Council and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
Sponsorships also help to keep registration fees for parade and festival participation for nonprofits and small businesses lower than for similar parades. Blankenship says that’s key because 90 percent of participants in its parade and festival are small businesses and nonprofits.
That includes Project No Labels.
“St. Pete Pride does a great job putting it all together,” says Claire Elisan, founder and CEO of Project No Labels, a nonprofit organization that promotes activism and volunteerism in the LGBTQ-plus community. “They help out a lot of the smaller organizations like ours and I think it is important to celebrate that because it raises visibility of the LGBTQ-plus community, which brings awareness to the entire community and over time promotes change, acceptance and tolerance.”
Elisan’s organization, which received the 2017 organizational Grand Marshall Award from St. Pete Pride, will be a benefiting organization for the Friday night charity concert on June 21, which will feature Lisa Loeb, known for her song Stay.
New this year will be a post-parade concert on Saturday, followed by fireworks. Headlining the concert will be bisexual Australian musician Rita Ora, whose most recent album was Phoenix. As in the past few years, the TransPride March will open the evening parade at 7 p.m. “We headline it with an advocacy-based TransPride March, which we see our mayor walk in every year, in addition to other politicians,” Blankenship says.
For J.P. DuBuque, president of the Greater St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp., there is a lasting economic impact long after the colorful floats have rolled by.
“There is certainly an economic impact from the event itself—people coming to the city, spending money at restaurants, hotels and any of our local establishments. But it also contributes to what St. Pete’s definition of culture and character is, which has broad-reaching and long-lasting legs that provide results for a long time,” DuBuque says. “Whether it is Pride Week in St. Petersburg, South by Southwest in Austin or Jazz Fest in New Orleans, it all provides something special about your city, and I think a lot of folks are looking for culture and character out of the city they want to live in.”
It’s a possible draw for companies too, DuBuque says.
“The companies that want to be here, and grow here, and the companies that want to move here are going to be interested in what our culture and character is. When folks see this type of an event that showcases things that are special about our city, I think that can be very helpful in creating that quality of life discussion.”