This year’s St. Pete Pride could easily produce record numbers – again

By : Steve Blanchard
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For a solid decade, St. Pete Pride has brought the LGBT community and its allies to the streets of the Grand Central District every June, shattering attendance records every time. Executive Director Eric Skains sees Pride continuing that tradition in 2013.

“Everybody focuses on numbers, but you can’t really determine what kind of crowd is going to turn out this early on,” Skains says while sitting in his office in St. Petersburg. “But I do expect we’ll see an increase over last year. I’m hearing that hotels are already sold out.”

In 2012, varying news organizations, including Watermark, estimated attendance around 100,000 at the street festival. One news outlet even estimated as high as 120,000. That was a significant jump from the previous record of 85,000 marked in 2011.

But as Skains says, predicting the number of revelers is impossible. What he can do, however, is share that other numbers are way up this year, including vendor participation and promenade participation.

“We’ve exceeded space for vendors, bringing the largest numbers ever to Central,” Skains says. “Financially we’re doing very well. We’ve exceeded our sponsorship goals.”

AnEpicCarnivaleSkains credits an ambitious push by St. Pete Pride earlier this year to get vendors and sponsors on board. Vendor registration began just after the new year and, while he admits he was worried that later registration would suffer, Skains pushed a similar program concerning promenade entries.

This year, expect a larger parade with nearly 150 individual units walking, driving, dancing and twirling down Central Avenue.

And this year, each unit will be announced from Pride sponsor Clear Channel, who will have radio personalities on hand. Judges will also determine who has the best presentation in the promenade, including best float and best music.

So expect a large contingent of participants in St. Pete Pride 2013, dubbed Pride Carnivale. But as far as overall attendance numbers goes, that’s anyone’s guess.

“What did they hit in Sao Paulo, [Brazil], 4 million?” Skains jokes. “I’d like to see that.”

The politics of Pride
St. Pete Pride will undoubtedly fall on the hottest day of the year. A blazing sun mixed with dark asphalt and scantily clad participants will ensure plenty of sweaty revelers take to the streets. But while many may feel a little uncomfortable in the heat, it’s important to remember what St. Pete Pride recognizes.

“Stonewall happened in June,” Skains said. “We commemorate those riots every year. And while we’ve come a long way, we have a long way to go.”

For the first time ever, all eight St. Pete City Council members signed a proclamation declaring June LGBT Pride month. Also for the first time, a local mayor has signed a proclamation as well – it just so happens that it was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and not St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster.

“We honestly thought getting Buckhorn to sign a proclamation would have been accepted more than it has been,” Skains says. “People are criticizing Pride for not getting Foster or for us letting Buckhorn do it at all.”

Skains says that when Pride reached out to Foster’s office, the calls always resulted in the mayor’s voicemail. When Buckhorn’s office was reached, the mayor was on the phone with Pride representatives immediately.

“We got nothing but silence from Foster’s office,” Skains explains. “I thought people would be more upset with Foster than they have been.”

On June 13, some Pride board members thought Foster might change course and sign a proclamation for Pride month. But even after a dig from St. Petersburg City Council woman Leslie Curran, who offered to make a line on the proclamation for the sitting mayor, Foster remained silent.

No St. Petersburg mayor has ever signed a proclamation recognizing St. Pete Pride or Pride Month.

“Foster considers St. Pete Pride an adult-themed event,” Skains said. That sentiment was echoed by Foster himself when he met briefly with Pride members after the council presented its unanimous proclamation. “But he didn’t offer any clarification. Look at Pride vs. the Grand Prix. It’s not like families are piled in and driving those cars.”

According to an economic impact study done by the Research Data Services of Tampa, St. Pete Pride brings a windfall of more than $10 million to the area. That same study found that more than 85% of those who stayed in hotels at previous St. Pete Pride celebrations planned to return the following year.

“It’s obvious that Pride has a huge impact not only socially on this city, but financially,” Skains says. “The City Council and the community at large now recognizes that.”

More than a day
St. Pete Pride’s big day is Saturday, June 29. That’s the day of the promenade and the street festival on Central Avenue. But there is special focus this year on the extended weekend of events celebrating diversity in St. Petersburg.

“There were missed opportunities, I think, before,” Skains says. “On the road at other Pride events people would talk about the drive to St. Petersburg for ‘just one day.’ So the idea for a destination-type Pride emerged.”

And that meant bringing in more than locals for a weekend of activities and bring back others who may have experienced the promenade before, but are hesitant to “see the same thing” they saw before.

“So we incorporated an art show, a film with Hedda Lettuce, and a pre-Pride concert,” Skains says. “The positive feedback has been amazing. We’re seeing ticket sales move steadily and I feel like we’re going to have a string of successful events.”

There is also a revamped VIP program for this year’s Saturday festival. For $35, attendees can attend the VIP lounge throughout the day and get complimentary food and beverages. The only catch is that alcohol cannot leave the VIP area.

“We’ll have beer trucks and food vendors like we always do,” says Skains. “But the VIP area is away from those wet zones, so people can come in, enjoy some food and a beverage, and then go back out to the festival.”

The VIP lounge is at the Neuro Science Building at 22nd Street and Central Avenue.

A fresh perspective
This year is the first time Skains will experience St. Pete Pride first hand. He took on the role of executive director last October after heading Houston Pride’s large event for several years before that.

The experience, he says, has been welcoming and rewarding.

“I’ve noticed that there’s a correlation between St. Petersburg and Texas,” Skains says. “Texas is a very proud state but it’s very welcoming. St. Pete Pride is a proud city. It’s a very beautiful and fun place to live and the people here are proud of their city. They’ve been nothing but accommodating and accessible since I moved here.”

After a decade of growth, many may thing that an event the size of St. Pete Pride has evolved as much as it can. But that’s simply not true, according to Skains. Plans are already underway for future festivals, which he says will prove that St. Pete Pride is a force that will continue to bring people and money to the city, as well as awareness to LGBT equality.

“St. Petersburg and St. Pete Pride is a fun experience,” Skains says. “Without all the decades of shaming that gay men and women were made to feel, there would have been no need to create a day in which we stand up to be seen. And as time has slowly gone on, marches have become parades, and parades have become celebrations.”

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