Dunedin thrives thanks to its LGBTQ roots. It all started with the first gay bar.

Dunedin has become a popular and bustling hangout thanks to LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses. But one business started it all back in 1984.
Published June 28
Updated June 28

DUNEDIN — Back in the day, Main Street was the place where kids threw down their bicycles at the train station and rode the tracks to someplace more exciting.

The shops downtown were either empty or nothing special, only selling the stuff people use every day. Residents had to go somewhere else if they wanted to experience any semblance of a nightlife.

That was back in the 1970s, before one bar changed everything.

In January 1984, Dallape’s was rebranded as a gay bar at 325 Main St. The straight owner, Dennis Dallape, had a gay best friend who talked him into making the change, said former manager Gregory Brady.

Before then, the best the bar could hope for were a handful of people drinking after a softball game. Police told the owner that “this was not going to be an easy thing,” Brady said, that folks wouldn’t react to well to a gay bar.

That first night, the lines to get in wrapped around the building. Brady was one of those waiting, he said, along with “every curious gay.”

Night after night, the lines stayed long. Inside, the LGBTQ community could finally do what straight people have always done everywhere else: hold hands, kiss, be who they are.

The crowds grew inside and out. People met, made connections, and would set down roots in Dunedin themselves. Soon old storefronts were bought up and remodeled. A salon popped up, and a florist, and restaurants.

Lives were changed by that first gay bar, and so was the city.

“I don’t think Dunedin would be the same without those folks,” said Mayor Julie Bujalski.

• • •

On any given night in downtown, the legacy of Dallape’s can be seen all around.

LGBTQ-owned and friendly businesses, some decades old, now line Main Street. The days of the downtown general store are long gone. Now there are dozens of storefronts, weekly farmers markets and monthly events.

“Once the gays move in and start painting and decorating everything you see just a domino effect,” Brady said.

He jokes that he’s Dunedin’s “grandfather of gay,” but also says he’s happy to live an accepting community where he doesn’t stand out because of his sexual orientation. Now 54, he owns Salon GW at 351 Main St. He helped set up the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, which now has more than 100 members.

He even met his husband Walter DeFord at Dallape’s. They’ve been together for 24 years now.

Bren Cueni, the owner of Cueni Brewing Co. and the head of the merchants association’s brewery subcommittee, said downtown Dunedin has a homegrown feel. Chains have intruded on other downtowns, but not Dunedin.

“There’s no big box here, it’s all mom and pop,” she said.

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When Cueni moved to Dunedin three years ago to start her business, she saw “welcome to the gayborhood” on the front door of the store she’d buy. She said it was one of the things she liked about the area. She wanted a place that gay family and friends could visit without feeling alienated.

Business owner Virgel Kelly, 63, has been there from the start. He opened Kelly’s restaurant on Main Street in 1989. He’s a lifelong resident of Dunedin. He was visiting home from his New York culinary school and was shocked to see the city had such a bustling nightlife.

Then in 2006, he helped open Blur, the bar that replaced 1470 West, which replaced Club 325, which took over for The Oasis, which was once called Dallape’s.

“I’ve always said Dunedin is just the best place on earth to do business,” Kelly said.

• • •

Historically, Dunedin has been a progressive, tolerant city — and often way ahead of Tampa Bay’s other municipalities.

In 2005, the city held a “Pride in Our Diversity Night.” It had the full support of City Hall, was sponsored by Dunedin’s spring training team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and drew hundreds of families.

That was also the year that Hillsborough leaders banned the county from participating in, or even acknowledging, Gay Pride events. It caused an uproar among supporters of gay rights, sparked protests and rallies against the policy and brought unflattering media attention to the other side of the bay. It wasn’t repealed until 2013.

In 2009, Dunedin passed an ordinance protecting employees no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Pinellas County would not do the same until 2013, and Tampa and Hillsborough did not do so until 2014.

Dunedin has also been more forward-thinking in comparison with neighboring cities. Clearwater and Pinellas Park have never passed such an ordinance, and Largo’s effort was voted down in 2003.

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But there’s a difference between being a welcoming city and being welcomed by everyone. Brady said there were times when people would drive by Dallape’s, roll their car windows down and hurl slurs and beer cans at the bar’s patrons. So, they moved the entrance to the back of the bar. Brady also kept a gun with him behind the bar.

Randy Wilkinson used to maintain 1470 West’s light and sound system in the 1990s. He’s bisexual and also a regular at the bar. He remembers one night leaving through the back door when a taller man who loomed over the 5-foot-8 Wilkinson started yelling at him, then assaulted him.

It took Wilkinson about a month to heal. Then he returned to the bar to dance and laugh with the usual crowd there.

“I wasn’t going to walk away because of that,” he said. “I cared too much about that place.”

• • •

In the 1990s, Brady noticed Dunedin was changing again: Straight people were starting to show up.

He recognized some classmates from Dunedin High School. Bachelorette parties started showing up for drag shows and male strippers. People came to dance because the gay bar had a reputation for having the best DJs.

Dunedin was attracting a mainstream audience.

“There’s been hold out in our community,” Brady said. “But they’ve been trampled over the years.”

When Brady was younger, Dunedin was smaller and being gay was harder, he knew it would be easier to leave his hometown for New York City or San Francisco.

But then Dunedin wouldn’t be what it is, and Brady wouldn’t be who he is:

“If you bloom where you’re planted you end up being stronger for it.”

Contact Romy Ellenbogen at rellenbogen@tampabay.com. Follow @Romyellenbogen.