CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - One of the largest LGBT events in the South will take over uptown Charlotte this weekend, bringing in a predicted 100,000 people.
Among the expected highlights is a Sunday parade with a record 2,700 registered participants, another indication that the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is in a celebratory mood after the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Organizers say this year's event should be the largest gay pride event ever held in the Carolinas, based on the fact that the festival has set crowd records every year since 2011.
"Charlotte is now home to the third-largest LGBT event in the South, and that's something to be proud of when you consider this is only the third year we've had our parade as part of it," said Matt Comer, who is in charge of marketing for the event.
"That's a testament to the growth of the LGBT community and the reshaping of this city. ... It's not all that long ago that people who might have been seen participating in a gay pride event here would have been fired the following day in this once-conservative church and banking town."
Last year, the event attracted a large number of major corporate sponsors, including the banks and hospitals. Major corporations continue to sign up this year, with 2015 newcomers Purina, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and Aetna.
This year marks the first time an economic study has been done to estimate how much money the festival brings to the city. The study, commissioned by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, says the total economic impact from out-of-town visitors last year was $7.75 million, including $2.49 million of additional labor income. In all, 77 jobs were supported by visitor spending, CRVA says.
"We knew (Charlotte) Pride has had a sizable impact ... but it was great to see data come back that supported how big that impact was," said Tom Murray of the CRVA.
"You attach a value as high as $7.75 million in economic benefit, (and) the community's ears perk up. They begin to see this is beyond another parade and festival and see that this positively enhances the city's overall quality of life."
CRVA has not done economic impact studies on similar uptown events such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade or St. Patrick's Day Parade. But it does have data on major sporting events set in uptown. The Belk Bowl, for example, had a $16.7 million economic impact last year, while the 2014 ACC Football Championship had a $30.9 million economic impact.
Charlotte Pride co-director Richard Grimstad says the study is proof of the LGBT community's spending power and growing influence in the region. The survey found 10,500 of the people who attended the event were from outside Charlotte, half of whom had traveled more than 100 miles to attend.
The average out-of-town visitor spent more than $460 during the three days, most of it on shopping and dining, the study showed.
"If the CRVA had said we had $1 million in impact, I would have been ecstatic, but $7.75 million?" Grimstad said. "When they sent us the report, I had to call and ask them if it was real. It was that unbelievable."
Charlotte has had an annual LGBT Pride festival for more than 15 years, though sites have changed and the parade was defunct for much of that time. The event moved to South Tryon Street for the first time in 2011 and attracted 25,000 people. In 2013, it was expanded to two days, and the parade was revived, resulting in 80,000 attendees.
Anti-LGBT protesters have remained a constant presence, though the numbers are dwindling each year, said Craig Hopkins, a co-director of Charlotte Pride. "They'll be there this year again, but it's fewer and fewer every year," he said.
Charlotte Pride is a nonprofit with an all-volunteer staff. However, the growing number of sponsors means the organization recently was able to lease its first permanent home in an office on The Plaza.
The office space will be used to launch a series of ambitious partnerships for Charlotte Pride, including programs aimed at the community's growing Latino population and leadership development for transgender causes.
Matt Comer predicts the legal victory on same-sex marriage will bring out more attendees this year. But he says it's also just as likely that more people will come out to sound off over some recent political failures.
An example is Charlotte City Council's decision in March to vote down a nondiscrimination proposal that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected categories. Proponents of that cause, which is expected to resurface next year, plan to be at the festival this weekend in search of support.