CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Queen City’s local LGBT Pride festival and parade has experienced continued growth in recent years, with a record breaking 100,000 in attendance at last year’s Charlotte Pride event, and organizers expecting even more attendees this year.

It turns out last year’s event had an even bigger effect on the city than anyone could have predicted.

A study commissioned by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA) found that the 2014 festival and parade added over $7.75 million in total economic impact from out of town visitors, nearly eight percent of whom traveled over 100 miles to attend. This included $2.49 million in labor income.

“We began a post-event survey in 2013 to help us better understand who was coming to Charlotte Pride, and what brought them out to the festival and parade,” explains Charlotte Pride Co-Director Craig Hopkins, adding, “it was [City Councilmember] LaWana Mayfield’s outreach to the CRVA that initiated our relationship with the CRVA to create the economic impact study using our survey.”

They were welcome findings.

“Clearly, we knew we were making an economic impact on the city. I just don’t think we could have ever guessed it was as high as it was. That was definitely a surprise,” Hopkins says.

CRVA officials agree.

“The findings definitely substantiated the positive feedback that’s been said on a qualitative level for so long. It’s great to have some quantitative data to support the event’s success,” says CRVA Director of Communications Laura White.

Looking at the numbers, it is easy to forget that even just several years ago this success story was anything but a given.

Pride or Pride-like events have been held in Charlotte going all the way back to the 1970s, with small festive gatherings held at parks and in parking lots. Yet it wasn’t until 2001 that Charlotte Pride held its first festival event.

A mere four years later it appeared to many like it might already be dead, after what Charlotte Pride’s website calls a “turbulent 2005 event marked by an overwhelming presence of local anti-LGBT protesters.”

“Charlotte Pride is back in the closet,” one of those protesters, Operation Save America’s Flip Benham, gleefully told City Council at the time.

The event didn’t stay in the closet long. It returned the following year — with this newspaper’s publisher Jim Yarbrough, former editor David Moore and other community members launching a coalition effort with the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte’s then-Executive Director Laura Witkowski to save the event.

[Ed. Note — This newspaper’s editor, Matt Comer, is also currently a longtime volunteer with the organization.]

That year, the event moved to Uptown’s Gateway Village — private property that allowed organizers to control the influx of anti-gay protesters. In 2010, it was held at the NC Music Factory.

But the event didn’t really get wider attention until it made the big leap to Uptown’s Tryon St. in 2011.

“Moving the festival Uptown gave Charlotte’s LGBTQ community a whole new level of visibility. We were no longer relegated to parks or private property,” Hopkins says.

Even still it was a hard sell for some.

“Hardly any of the businesses [along Tryon St.] were open,” Hopkins recalls. “Now, not only are they open but they are reaching out to be a part of the celebration.”

Hopkins says they’ve seen an increase in new sponsors and that they have sold out vendor spaces early for a second year in a row.

This year’s new additions include a Bud Light-sponsored outdoor bar and karaoke lounge and an expanded Kids Zone, with games and other family friendly activities.

“I think in the past families saw Pride festivals as just one big party. We think there is room for everyone,” Hopkins says.

In addition to the move in location, Hopkins attributes better management to their recent success.

“When Charlotte Pride split with the community center in 2013, we were very intentional in how we staffed and managed the organization. We began running it like a business and even brought in an outside advisory committee to consult with the executive team,” he says.

But the event’s growth hasn’t been without challenge. As attendee numbers have swelled, so have expectations for better festival attractions and entertainment. Each year, the group has added new attraction at the festival or beefed up existing attractions.

In 2014, the festival brought in LeAnn Rimes as one of their headliners — beefing up expectations for entertainment.

“Picking headliners is always an interesting process. Especially for a free event,” Hopkins -says.

The group has lined up Grammy Award-winner Estelle, whose popular hit “American Boy” featuring Kanye West lit up airwaves in 2008, to headline on Saturday night. Openly gay Country artist Billy Gilman will also headline on Sunday. Hopkins says Charlotte Pride’s relationships through InterPride, an international association of Pride event organizers, has helped them solicit and scout out main stage talent.

“This year in particular it was very helpful. We have headliners to rival Chicago, Houston and Boston. These are festivals that are two-to-three times our size,” Hopkins says. “So that’s pretty flattering to know we can match that kind of lineup.”

Reaction online to the entertainers varies every year. Some are excited, some don’t know who the headliners are and some express disappointment. It’s criticism that Hopkins takes in stride.

“As for reaction, this year is no different than we receive every other year. Some are thrilled and others are not,” he says. “We’re a diverse community so it’s always hard to please everybody. But I think there is something for everybody this year, especially since we’ve stressed local entertainers and giving local artists a chance to shine on the stage. We’re really excited that so many of our entertainers this year are this really great, diverse mix of talented artists right here in the Queen City.”

But feedback elsewhere has been positive, Hopkins says, especially from attendees who have have helped to grow the festival.

“I would say society’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community has shifted tremendously just in the past four years I’ve been with Pride,” Hopkins says, pointing to increased numbers — 16 percent last year — of attendees who identify as straight. “That’s huge,” Hopkins adds.

It appears Charlotte Pride will continue to flourish.

“I think any time you attach a value as high as $7.75 million in economic benefit to it, the community’s ears perk up,” says CRVA’s White. “They begin to see this is beyond another parade and festival and see that this positively enhances the city’s overall quality of life for everyone. We know the programming and organization of the event is key, and we’ve got a fantastic team in place that can continue to elevate this event year after year.”

Charlotte Pride Economic Impact Findings:

– Of the more than 10,500 out-of-town visitors, nearly 81 percent stayed overnight in Charlotte, with 68 percent of those visitors staying at local hotels.
– More than 77 percent of festival attendees also attended the parade.
– The average visitor spent more than $460 per person while visiting the city.
– The average length of stay of overnight visitors was 1.7 nights and included 3.4 people.
– The largest amount of spending was lodging, followed by food, beverage and retail.
– More than 62 percent of attendees spent their dollars shopping, with more than 61 percent spending dollars on local dining.

— Data provided via Charlotte Pride from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority-backed economic impact study.