Gay Games 2006 Look To Revamp Chicago's Cultural Image
CHICAGO (AP) -- Rainbow pillars welcome revelers to a vibrant neighborhood of gay bars and nightclubs. The mayor supports same-sex marriage, and an openly gay alderman serves on the City Council.
Chicago has spent years cultivating its gay-friendly image, down to appointing a liaison to the gay community. Its annual Gay Pride parade Sunday is expected to draw thousands, but the city stands to profit even more next summer when athletes and spectators from around the world pour in for Gay Games VII.
The weeklong Olympics-style Gay Games could pump $50 million to $80 million into the local economy, organizers say, while giving Chicago another chance to appeal to a lucrative market with billions of dollars in estimated annual buying power.
``We like to have our share of that,'' said Bill Greaves, the city's liaison to the lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgendered communities.
Major events like the Gay Games give the city unmatched national and international exposure _ major league soccer's World Cup did it in 1994, the Democratic National Convention drew the national media in 1996, and major league baseball's 2003 All-Star Game brought in fans from all over.
The 2006 Games could draw 12,000 participants from 70 countries and more than 50,000 spectators, said Kevin Boyer, an official with Chicago Games Inc., the local not-for-profit group putting on the events.
``The more people we can introduce Chicago to, the more visitors we're going to have,'' said Dorothy Coyle, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism.
Chicago relies on those tourists, some 30 million a year, to bring $9 billion into the city annually.
The 2006 Gay Games already have about 2,700 participants registered, but they will face some unexpected competition from Montreal, which is hosting the first World Out Games a week after Chicago's events.
Montreal was the initial choice for the Gay Games but the event went to Chicago when organizers in the Canadian city and the Federation of Gay Games couldn't reach an agreement. The Out Games had 5,200 participants registered by mid-June, said spokesman Jean-Yves Duthel.
``We're hopeful that in the end that both sets of Games will contribute to goodwill for both countries,'' said Art Johnston, a community activist and co-owner of Sidetrack, a popular Chicago gay bar.
For tourism officials, the Gay Games will also be more evidence they can use to bolster a reputation of Chicago as a gay-friendly place to visit when they host national members of the gay press later this summer.
The U.S. gay, lesbian and bisexual community has an estimated $610 billion in buying power, according a recent analysis by Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington-based firm that specializes in reaching gay consumers, and Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com.
``It's a great economic market for us to attract,'' said Jan Kostner, head of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism.
But courting the gay community doesn't come without controversy. Some groups have objected to the Gay Games and the corporate sponsors supporting them.
The Mississippi-based conservative American Family Association e-mailed its supporters urging them to write to Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods and ask it to withdraw its $25,000 sponsorship.
Kraft spokeswoman Kris Charles said one the company's employee diversity councils suggested supporting the Games and the company has no plans to drop out.
Harris Bank, which also gave $25,000, won't withdraw its support either, bank spokeswoman Jen Dillon said.
``The exposure they're getting is all built around a celebration of homosexuality,'' argued Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Glen Ellyn-based Illinois Family Institute.
Organizers of the Games, however, give little heed to the criticism.
``Seriously, how much do you have to hate gay people to not want them to play softball,'' Boyer said.
The Games, which started in 1982 in San Francisco, are held every four years and open to participants, gay and straight alike, regardless of physical ability. The 30 sports -- from figure skating and swimming to flag football and bodybuilding -- have divisions from recreational to elite. ``Passion for the sport qualifies you,'' Boyer said.
Groups in large cities typically bid to host the Games. There is no money available to build new facilities, so the cities have to have sports venues available that can accommodate the crowds, Boyer said.
Next year's opening ceremony, July 15, is planned for Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, and the closing ceremonies, July 22, are to be held at the Chicago Cubs' Wrigley Field.
The city of Chicago isn't a financial sponsor but it is a strategic partner, which means its working with organizers to line up the facilities and other resources. Boyer said the Games, which have a cash budget of $10 million, pay for facilities, although sometimes at a reduced rate.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he's looking forward to having the Games in his city, another _expression of his support for the gay community.
``I'm excited about it because they're great citizens,'' he said.