People are crowding onto Santa Rosa Island for the Memorial Day weekend. Many are looking forward to the beach parties that mark the annual mostly LGBT gathering at Park East.
About 150,000 people attended the LGBT-related events last Memorial Day. And organizer Johnny Chism is expecting higher numbers this time around. A number of events are on tap at Emerald City on Wright Street – the downtown Pensacola bar owned by Chism and considered the headquarters for the LGBT weekend.
“This year everything’s actually being held at Emerald City,” says Chism. “We have international DJs coming in, starting Friday night. And they’ll be there Friday, Saturday and Sunday. During the day at the beach, it’s like a big festival. Everybody’s just hangs out and walks around and enjoys the beach.”
Nicole Stacy, President of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, did not return calls seeking an interview for this story. But UWF economist Rick Harper says those flying the rainbow flag, are helping to bring a lot of green into the area at the start of the summer season.
“Obviously, anytime you can bring the beach to capacity, that allows hoteliers to stop offering such discounts during the week and the weekend,” Harper says. “And allows them to generate the income that keeps UWF students employed during the spring, summer and fall months as they work their way through school.”
When you’re strictly a short-time, hot-weather summer tourist season like the Pensacola area, Harper says you have to make every big weekend count. Although the Memorial Day weekend often is a gauge of sorts on how the rest of the summer season could go, he says 2014 is a bit of an anomaly.
“We had a very slow start to the year, bad weather (and) not much travel,” Harper said. “But what I’m hearing from hoteliers and property managers is that (in) summer 2014, there are more advance bookings than there were last year. So it looks like we’ve got a healthy summer season.
This is the 19th year that a major gay and lesbian party event has been held at Pensacola Beach – an area in what many describe as the most conservative region of Florida. But organizer Johnny Chism says over the years, the level of acceptance by the community has been on the increase.
“The first 2-3 years were very challenging,” Chism said. “And, as the years have gone by, it just seems like it’s just another event.”
Perhaps many attending this year’s events at Park East are treating them as a celebration of recent gay rights victories -- repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a domestic partnership registry in Pensacola, and a growing number of states that have legalized gay marriage – now at 18 with more expected by the end of the year.