officials worry human rights ordinance debate will add negative publicity
the maelstrom over whether to repeal Miami-Dade County's controversial human
rights ordinance gains strength, civic leaders say they worry that the community's
tolerant image could be washed away in the storm, further dampening an already
slow tourism business.
imbroglio - replete with accusations of fraud, criminal investigations, threatened
lawsuits and otherwise caustic rhetoric - has drawn national attention to Miami-Dade
County at a time when the area is thirsty for positive press. Hospitality industry
officials say negative publicity or a perception of intolerance could tarnish
the appeal of the area to many people or organizations, especially those sympathetic
to rights issues. And the possibility of organized protests, however remote,
looms as a fall referendum on the issue grows likely.
have to monitor this upcoming election as to the ability to market to this market,
" said Stuart Blumberg, head of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association
and chair of Miami Beach's tourism task force. "The feedback may be negative
- why would you want to go to Miami-Dade County when they don't want us? We
have to understand that one of our strengths in marketing has been to cultivate
the gay and lesbian market. There have been major efforts to create and nurture
the market. It's grown to be tremendous."
members of the hospitality industry say the gay tourism market's reputation
for being well-educated, affluent and able to travel makes it one of the most
desirable. But it also could give the political storm over a likely human rights
referendum the power to shake one of the area's strong visitor markets.
lot of tourism is based on impressions and an intangible feeling about a place,"
said Wayne Besen, spokesman from the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy
group for gay and lesbian rights. "Right now, in South Florida - Miami
in particular - there's a very positive feeling about it. It's an international
city open to all people.
referendum brings negative attention to that area. It's an unwanted referendum
that will do nothing positive for business at best, and at worst, will turn
off people from coming down there."
history with rights ordinances protecting civil rights - including those of
gays and lesbians - stretches to 1977, when the county commission passed an
equal rights ordinance introduced by then county commissioner Ruth Shack. But
when activist Anita Bryant led a high-profile charge against the ordinance,
residents of Dade repealed it. A similar ordinance was introduced in 1997 but
county commissioners initially rejected it, prompting the formation of SAVE
Dade, a group dedicated to ensuring protection for gays and lesbians.
December 1998, the commission approved the Human Rights Ordinance as it now
stands. By early 1999, the Christian Coalition had started pressing for a repeal
of the ordinance by referendum, forming Take Back Miami-Dade in 2000. After
a failed attempt to collect signatures supporting the ordinance's elimination,
Take Back Miami-Dade received a second chance to canvass for support. But when
the group submitted 51,000 signatures in December 2000, SAVE Dade began a manual
review of the signatures and found some to be fraudulent.
the Miami-Dade Elections Department allowed for a review of the signatures -
and found irregularities - the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office and
the Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened a criminal investigation, which
is ongoing. Still, the elections supervisor ultimately certified the signatures
on the petition. The only thing preventing a fall referendum, aside from SAVE
Dade's legal challenges, is approval from the Miami-Dade County Commission -
a step that Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas called "perfunctory."
a full-fledged boycott may seem distant at this stage in the controversy - especially
with prominent elected officials, including Mr. Penelas and Miami Beach Mayor
David Dermer vocally supporting the human rights ordinance - significant protests
over the issue have occurred elsewhere.
Colorado, a well-publicized boycott in 1993 protested an amendment that would
have barred any community in the state from approving civil rights protection
based on sexual orientation. Known as Amendment Two, the legislation was a response
to the governments of Denver, Boulder and Aspen adopting broad civil rights
laws. Although legal battles all the way to the US Supreme Court eventually
killed Amendment Two, its initial passage prompted a boycott whose effects continue
to be felt, according to the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
there was nothing," said Rich Grant, bureau spokesman. "But about
a month later, at a speech, Barbra Streisand said there should be a boycott,
and it got a tremendous amount of media publicity. Even without an officially
sanctioned boycott, the ramifications were significant. It's impossible to measure
the phones not ringing. But there were 20 cities with similar-sized convention
facilities. If one's going to cause upheaval in the group and the other 19 aren't,
when you're deciding, it's common sense - you're not going to take the one who
will cause headaches and problems."
Grant said that although individual leisure tourism remained strong his city
lost 31 conventions worth $38 million as a direct result of the boycott, as
well as 27% of its tentative bookings.
still have people call and say they're concerned about civil rights in Denver,
" he said. "We are now on the record as having the most votes and
city council actions to protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians. It's
a big hit - it could take years and years to undo that image."
Beach officials have long supported rights protection for gays and lesbians,
passing a human rights ordinance in 1992 and more recently providing for domestic
partner benefits for city employees. And Miami Beach probably has the most at
stake. With its resort tax down about 25% in the post-Sept. 11 economy, the
city is yearning to rebuild tourism. Although no statistics are available for
the numbers of Miami Beach's gay and lesbian tourists, they are generally considered
to be a hefty segment.
really would be the height of irony for a city like ours, which has been in
the forefront of the country, to be in any way associated with the repeal effort
going on in the county," Mr. Dermer said.
mayor said he supports the county's human rights ordinance and wants his city
and the Miami-Dade County Commission to stand behind the law.
will try to get the message out to national organizations that we have a different
record in Miami Beach over a long period of time," he said. "Hopefully
we will not be painted in the same brush as the county. A boycott would be unfair,
unjust and absolutely wrong in our city - it would be punishing the city that
has led the way."
Dermer and Mr. Penelas met last month with leaders of Take Back Miami-Dade to
ask them to withdraw their request for a referendum. Their attempt failed.
spokesman for Take Back Miami-Dade said the economic repercussions to this area
if the ordinance were repealed would be negligible.
a numerical standpoint, there are infinitely more pro-family, pro-faith citizens
in America than there are homosexualist extremists - that's any person who is
an activist who tries to impose homosexuality on the rest of society,"
said Eladio Jose Armesto, the organization's communications director. "Who
would want to boycott a community for wanting sound public policy? It would
be ludicrous - it's laughable."
Florida spokesman Tom Flanigan said negative national attention does not necessarily
translate to a tourism slowdown. Visit Florida is the state's tourism marketing
the 2000 election, Florida became the butt of every late-night TV monologue
for weeks. How did that affect tourism? It's impossible to quantify. It's not
significant as far visitor numbers are concerned," he said. "Neither
we nor the governor's office were deluged with nasty letters saying they'd never
come to Florida again. We got a few, but insignificant compared to the numbers
who did come.
governmental policy that would appear to discourage certain visitors coming
to Florida, that could have more far-reaching impact," Mr. Flanigan said.
"But that said, it's impossible to speculate at this point."
Penelas said that short of a boycott, more subtle economic ripples could be
felt if the ordinance were repealed.
could conceivably have business owners who are gay who would decide not to expand
or would relocate their business," he said. "You could have a situation
where you have businesspeople who were recruited to come here who may not want
to come here."
Peņa, chair of SAVE Dade, said when it comes to this area's economy, image is
Dade doesn't support a boycott. But we have no control over the national or
international gay and lesbian groups. This vote puts the community at risk,"
she said. "If this vote comes to pass, certainly it will come to everyone's
this ordinance were to be repealed, that affects how we're viewed, how people
will feel visiting us and how people will feel living here. The ordinance lets
everyone know we're an enlightened, inclusive, embracing community. If it's
repealed, it sends the opposite message.
can ill-afford to be seen going in the opposite way of progress."
Cullom, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, said "doing
the right thing" was his primary concern, not the economic impact.
has shown if you do something that does discriminate, it definitely hurts all
the tourism in the state and everything else," Mr. Cullom said. "There's
no question it's a major factor."