Pride’s poor reputation among queer business owners seems not to have improved in the last 18 months despite significant changes on the board and in procedures, if a recent business consultation meeting is any indication.
Representatives of just three local bars—The Lookout, The Buzz and Heaven—showed up. Representatives from Ottawa’s other gay hotspots, as well as a dozen other companies were no-shows, leaving some scratching their heads.
The Mar 27 meeting was billed as a business community consultation, hosted in the evening by Pink Triangle Services.
“There was meeting scheduled, and there were numerous businesses invited. It was a brainstorming session to help Pride. It was a bit disappointing not to see other businesses come out. From my perspective, I just wonder why,” says Kelly Brant, owner of The Lookout and Buzz.
Marion Steele, the Pride board member in charge of business partnerships, says that The Lookout and The Buzz have always been there for the community.
“There’ve been a few that have been steadfast. They’ve stood by, through thick and thin. And the others—we’re working on them,” says Steele.
She counts The Lookout, Jack Of All Trades Design, Pat Croteau Imaging and Capital Xtra among those that have stuck with Pride through hard times.
“One In Ten, quietly in its own way, contributes, as does After Stonewall, Mother Tongue Books. Even for business that don’t have a lot of money, they at least agree to sell tickets or provide door prizes,” she says.
“There are some prominent businesses that have felt alienated in the past. I don’t think they ever took a hard edge. I think they are cautious, which makes sense,” she says.
Last year was the first since 2001 that Ottawa’s festivities did not generate a deficit. It’s good news, but five years of debts means lots of money owing to—among others—Ottawa’s gay business owners.
The history of Pride’s uneasy relationship to the business community is almost as old as Pride itself. There was a rocky period in the ’90s, but it’s perhaps Pride most recent economic turbulence that has colored attitudes most deeply.
The organizers of Pride 2002 had a go-big-or-go-home attitude, adding, among other things, a street party on Bank St. They blew it: the event left the following year’s committee owing $40,000 to its partners. By 2003, Pride owed $100,000 and by 2005, Pride’s debt had swollen to $200,000.
That debt has been reduced to $133,000 partly through the painful process of “restructuring debt,” wherein businesses shoulder the pain by agreeing to settle for a small part—25 percent, in this case—of the amount owed.
Kim Meechan, owner of Outstuff, a home business that sells pride wear, is reluctant to put too much weight on the poor showing. She acknowledges that the festival has had rough patches, but she thinks during the last 18 months—under the financial leadership of Gordon Boissonneault—they’ve begun to rebuild their brand.
“I know they were rocky before, but I think they’ve improved,” says Meechan.
“There could be all kinds of reasons that people didn’t come. It was probably just the date or the time,” she says.
It also doesn’t help that the owners of some of Ottawa’s biggest businesses, including Centretown Pub, don’t live in Ottawa most of the year.
As reluctant as the community is to admit it, most of Ottawa’s gay businesses operate on razor-thin margins. Many of them lose money most of the year and eke out a small profit in summer. There aren’t any fat cats holding out, says Meechan.
“We don’t have big businesses here. Nobody’s making a lot of money,” she says.
“They will contribute any way they can, as they always have,” she adds.
For Brant, the community can’t blame Pride, even in its darkest hours, for its financial difficulties. She points out that the festival has no paid staff and that it’s those who step up to the plate that end up bearing the brunt of the blame.
“Like numerous other festivals, it’s always a struggle. They’re volunteering to help make pride better. They put in countless hours and they all have other full-time jobs. To blame solely the volunteers—I don’t think so,” says Brant.
“Instead of squeezing the local businesses, let’s look at the community, encourage them to attend fundraisers or go to events,” says Meechan.
Steele agrees and she says that outreach is already begun. The Pride team has always been aware that re-building Pride’s reputation would take a while.
“This is a crucial year for Pride, the first year that we took it over, the debt load was huge, and we were working so hard just to pull off the festival.”
Last year, the city wrote off its Pride-related costs: nearly $30,000 in the end.
“This year we don’t have that. It’ll be a telltale year,” says Steele.