Positive Living: Thanks, Concern and an Open Mind from a Founder of St. Pete Pride

By : Greg Stemm
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As one of the founders of St. Pete Pride, first let me say “thank you.” Over the past 15 years you’ve taken our concept of a truly grassroots community-driven Pride celebration and transformed it into the largest Pride event in the state and one of the premier LGBTQ experiences in the country.

In doing so, you’ve taken it even one step further and helped to transform St. Petersburg from a sleepy retirement community into a blossoming gay mecca becoming known by many as “the San Francisco of the East.” Make no mistake, we are celebrating 15 years of successful Pride celebrations not because of anything we did as founders or the controversial decisions of the current board, but because you supported it. St. Pete Pride was and is your Pride celebration.

In the early days of Pride our success was by no means a given. We were operating with a mayor who openly opposed the event and a neighborhood and business district that was just beginning to see the rewards of redevelopment. Despite these obstacles we worked hard to garner support from the Kenwood neighborhood, the Grand Central Business District and in particular a supportive council member who is now the mayor of St. Petersburg. It was ultimately their loving support that launched the event into the wildly successful celebration we have all come to enjoy today. As founders we believe the ongoing support of all of them is paramount to the future of the event.

It’s one of the reasons why the five remaining founders have been vocal in our opposition to some of the changes that have been happening with Pride this year. These same businesses, neighborhood, elected officials and individuals who supported us at the beginning continue to speak out against the move of the venue of St. Pete Pride to a waterfront downtown location. It seems to us that these voices were not adequately heard by the organization and this led to a sharp division in the local gay community during this past year. In today’s difficult political climate what is needed is unity and not division.

Our founding vision of St. Pete Pride was one that was based on grassroots support. After a number of Pride celebrations in Tampa fell victim to putting profit above people and collapsed, it was our vision that to have a truly successful Pride celebration it needed to be organized, run and supported by not only the local gay community, but the general St. Petersburg community as well. It is our deep concern that it seems to us that now St. Pete Pride may be falling into to the same mistakes that killed previous Pride celebrations on the other side of the bay.

The five remaining board members were so concerned about this that they drafted a letter to the current board which in essence said that we were less concerned about the actual move of venue and more concerned about the organization making decisions based more on finances than what the community actually wants. I was impressed that the board took the time and care to thoughtfully respond to us, but I was very concerned about what they said. I quote from their letter: “In respect to the decision to relocate the main events of St. Pete Pride, the move comes down to several concerns that you have mostly likely been made aware. However, one is a paramount reason: cost. As an organization, we cannot continue to operate on a budget that merely breaks even. This is not sustainable. Although we have a fondness for the main events in Grand Central, the costs have exceeded what we feel comfortable with.”

So we’ve told them our concern is that they are placing finances over what is best for the community and they respond by saying that’s exactly what they are doing. Our goal was to serve the community and break even so we could continue. A focus on putting money ahead of that is deeply troubling.

Part of their reasoning also becomes clear later in the letter. “In the end, the ability for St. Pete Pride to create a savings that will be sustainable for future years builds upon our second program: Community Grants. In 2014, we were able to distribute over $20,000 to local non-profit organizations outside of the already existing beverage program. In 2015, this decreased to $5,000. And since the organization took a financial hit with the unexpected increase in city costs, only $1,500 was distributed in 2016.”

These concerns need to be addressed after we have had another wildly successful year this year, and I encourage each of you to get engaged in the process. Right now, the most important thing is for us to set aside the contentious debates of the past year and do what we have been doing for the past 15 years: showing the world that the LGBTQ community is strong, vibrant and believes in the values of diversity and acceptance that our beloved St. Petersburg has come to embrace. I look forward to seeing you there!

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