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The new gay mecca next door: Iowa may ring up tourism dollars

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The new gay mecca next door: Iowa may ring up tourism dollars
Joe Hoagbin of Omaha crosses the pedestrian bridge into Iowa / Photo Alyssa Schukar/The World-Herald

By omaha.com | Apr 06, 2009

Nine years ago, Omahans Donna Colley and Margaux Towne-Colley ventured off to a picturesque village in Vermont to exchange rings and vows of lifelong commitment.

Their civil union ceremony had no legal effect in their home state of Nebraska. But that trip to Vermont still meant everything to the lesbian couple.

"It's ingrained in us from childhood that when you love someone, you want to marry them," Towne-Colley said. "It's still something tangible to us."

Like Vermont before, Iowa is poised to become a destination for thousands of same-sex couples, from the Midwest and points beyond, now that it's the only state west of New England to legalize gay marriage.

A study by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles already had estimated that about 58,000 couples would marry in the first three years if same-sex marriage became legal in Iowa. That included an estimated 3,000 couples from Iowa and just under 1,000 from Nebraska.

With Friday's Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage set to take effect in three weeks, it appears that rush to the altar will begin this spring.

"Even gay couples like to get married in June," said Lee Badgett, research director for UCLA's Williams Institute, which deals with sexual orientation law and public policy.

The sudden creation of what would essentially be a gay marriage tourism industry in Iowa would bring economic benefits, the UCLA
study said, estimating total economic impact at more than $50 million a year.

The study did not address any economic impact that would result from same-sex couples deciding to move to Iowa because of the law, another potential result of their new legal status.

Given Omaha's position as a transportation and entertainment hub for western Iowa, it's likely some of the wedding industry and tourism dollars from gay nuptials would spill into Nebraska.

But before anyone starts counting the tourism green, Iowa Rep. Steve King said they should first consider the black mark he said the high court decision has left on the state. That, too, could have financial implications of its own, the Republican said.

"The clarion call is going out to turn Iowa into a mecca for same-sex marriage in America," King said. "There will be tour groups set up to do this, and there will be a branch office in Berkeley. That's what this activist decision has done."

King said Iowa lawmakers should pass a residency requirement for people to marry in Iowa, which he said is the only quick way to shut off the influx of out-of-state gay couples.

With tourism slumping nationally in the face of the nation's economic crisis, some tourism industry leaders in other states have been actively backing gay marriage legalization just to create the opportunity now seen in Iowa.

Within hours of the court's ruling, it was too early to tell if tourism-related businesses in Iowa or the Omaha area would seek to capitalize on gay marriage's new status.

Bob Mundt, president of the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment, citing the controversial nature of the court decision and likely mixed reaction from his members. Omaha tourism officials also had little comment.

"We can't anticipate how this is going to impact Omaha tourism," said Deborah Ward of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We just don't know."

But there seems little doubt there will be impact on both sides of the Missouri River.

Taking no position on Iowa's new marriage policy, French Cafe owner Tony Abbott said customers from Iowa in general have a measurable impact on his Omaha restaurant. He recently did business with Japanese engineers and executives building a power plant across the river.

He also gets lots of marriage-related business, including prenuptial or post-wedding dinners and even ceremonies.

"If such an event were to come to pass, we certainly would expect to see some impact from that," Abbott said.

It has been proven in the past that states seen as friendly to gay couples become tourism draws.

It likely wasn't intended or expected, but that happened in Vermont in 2000 when it became the first state to recognize gay civil unions, a legal status short of marriage that confers many of the same rights.

A niche gay wedding industry was suddenly created, with lodges in the wooded state hosting thousands of celebrations.

According to a Vermont tourism publication, some lodges advertised package deals, and a gay travel association received a $1,500 state grant to promote the industry at a New York gay life expo. Florists, caterers, bakers, photographers and other hotels shared in the business.

When Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, the impact was somewhat limited by a state law barring out-of-state couples if their union would not be legal in their home state.

But last year, the state repealed that law, opening Massachusetts for anyone to wed. A state study concluded the change would draw thousands of gay and lesbian couples from out of state, creating 330 jobs and generating $111 million in economic activity over three years.

California also became a draw for gay couples last year after a court decision legalized gay marriage there, with the state travel and tourism commission promoting same-sex wedding locations and honeymoon packages. That ended when a November vote of the people overturned the ruling.

This year, as lawmakers in Vermont have considered changing the state's civil unions law into one legalizing gay marriage, and as the Maine Legislature has debated legalizing gay marriage, tourism-related businesses have been among the measures' strongest advocates.

It's still possible a vote similar to California's could ultimately overturn gay marriage in Iowa. But under state procedures for constitutional amendments, that could not happen until at least 2011 or, more likely, 2012.

By then, according to the UCLA study, 3,000 gay Iowa couples would have wed, along with 55,000 more from out of state.

Badgett of the Williams Institute expects that influx from out of state even though most of those marriages won't have any legal effect beyond Iowa. Only a handful of states recognize same-sex unions performed in other states.

"Thousands of people came to Vermont and California, spent a lot of money and were thrilled to be part of something they were shut out of even if they weren't going to get a tangible benefit," Badgett said.

The UCLA study concluded that Iowa would draw most of its out-of-state gay couples from Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin, states that already account for three-quarters of tourists in Iowa.

Census figures suggest there are almost 90,000 gay couples in those states, including about 4,000 in Nebraska. The study concluded a fourth of them would decide to marry in Iowa. It also assumed 5 percent of gay couples in other states across the country would choose to marry in Iowa.

The UCLA study did not estimate how many new jobs would be created by wedding-related tourism. But a similar study the Williams Institute did in Maine concluded that 1,000 jobs would be created. The institute is estimating Iowa will see three times as many weddings as Maine would.

The UCLA study looked at some other financial implications of gay marriage, including whether there would be a cost to state taxpayers. The report concluded that the state would see a net gain of $5 million a year, primarily from reduced public assistance costs and increased sales tax revenue from tourism.

Marc Solomon, a leading gay activist from Massachusetts who recently moved to California, said the biggest financial impact of gay marriage in Iowa was not examined in the study: gay couples permanently moving to Iowa to take advantage of their new equal status.

Though such impacts are difficult to measure, he said, Iowa employers will no doubt have a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting gay workers.

Congressman King said the reverse also could be true, with potential workers and companies shunning the state as a gay rights "island in America."

Solomon said experience in other states proves otherwise. While there's much media attention now, and there will be again when same-sex weddings begin in Iowa, he said the issue for most people will quickly become "a tremendous nonevent."

"Like those in Massachusetts and Connecticut, people in Iowa will find that the fact a lesbian couple down the street can be married and protected under the law has no impact on them," Solomon said.

Saturday, Omahans Joe Hoagbin and Todd Fossum already were making plans to wed this summer at the famous Little Brown Church in the Vale in Nashua, Iowa.

"This is absolutely amazing," said Hoagbin, a physician. "What an affirmation this is of everyone's life and what they bring to society."

The couple actually took a wedding vow last July beneath San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a then-legal union thrown into limbo by the subsequent repeal of gay marriage in California. To renew their vow now, all they will need to do is cross the river.




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