1. Florida Politics

GaYBOR group wins unexpected recognition as economic engine

TAMPA — In the recent past, it would seem almost unthinkable that the Hillsborough County Commission would salute a group promoting the region to gay business owners and tourists.

But something stirred at Hillsborough County Center this week, when the commission's gay board member circulated an annual proclamation heralding GaYBOR Days in the Ybor City historic district. For the first time in the event's six years, a majority of the seven-member board has signed it.

"I don't care about who's gay or straight or who owns a respectable, productive business," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican who in the past has declined to sign the proclamation. "What I do care about is job creation and economic development. This district serves as a strong economic engine and I have no problem signing a proclamation that tells them and their customers that."

Hagan was joined as a first-time signer of the proclamation by Republican Mark Sharpe, who is in his final term on the board. Sharpe has moved from refusing to sign past GaYBOR proclamations to sending his own separate letter last year commending the group for its work to bolster the economy.

This year he lends his signature to the document for the first time. Like Hagan, he framed his support as a matter of promoting economic development in all forms.

"They're a constituency, and they're working to make our local economy strong," Sharpe said.

A proclamation signing by a bare majority of commissioners would not ordinarily merit a mention. But it marks a possible watershed moment for a commission best known for having a written policy against recognizing gay pride and recently refusing to join other area governments in creating domestic partnership registries.

The GaYBOR District Coalition has more than 270 business members — owned by gay and straight people — and puts on the weeklong GaYBOR Days celebration, this year from Friday through Monday. With an initial focus on gay-run businesses that helped revitalize Ybor City, it now seeks to market the west coast of Florida as a welcoming place for gay people to do business and visit, with the historic district as its epicenter.

The names of Hagan and Sharpe appear along with those of Democrats Les Miller and Kevin Beckner. Both have signed the proclamation in the past and the latter is circulating this year's version. Beckner was planning to present the proclamation at a reception Friday night.

Both Hagan and Sharpe said their signatures do not represent movement on their views on whether county government should promote gay rights or pride, though Sharpe has evolved on the topic. He recently sided with Democrats in supporting a domestic partnership registry, which grants unmarried couples, gay or straight, limited rights, such as the ability to visit partners in the hospital and make medical decisions.

The proclamation comes on the heels of a vote by a narrow majority of commissioners in support of placing anti-gay rights crusader Terry Kemple on a proposed diversity panel.

Beckner has told commissioners he plans to revisit the ban on county recognition or support of gay pride displays and events next month. He welcomed the signatures from his fellow board members and expressed belief that they show that a majority of the board appreciates the contributions of gay people to the community. "I do believe it's about economic development," Beckner said. "It's also about recognizing the accomplishments of the (lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender) community. It's a small step towards progress for the County Commission."

The proclamation calls the GaYBOR District Coalition a "strong economic engine in our community." Thanks to the coalition's effort, Ybor City is now recognized as a top destination in an $85 billion annual gay and lesbian travel industry, it says.

The first whereas clause reads: "Members of the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community contribute greatly to economic vitality, neighborhood revitalization, arts and culture, and the social fabric of Hillsborough County and the State of Florida."

"How wonderful," said Carrie West, president of the GaYBOR District Coalition, upon learning his proclamation has four signatures.

GaYBOR days has routinely been welcomed by Tampa mayors past and present, along with the City Council and other elected officials. In past years, West said, some commissioners have refused to meet his eyes when he has appealed for their support.

Commissioners Sandra Murman and Al Higginbotham did not return phone messages that included the topic and sought their comment. Their fellow Republican Victor Crist said he was given a brief time window in which to provide a signature and said he first wanted to review marketing brochures for the event that he said in the past have not been "family friendly."

Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.