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Originally published April 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 24, 2007 at 11:34 AM

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Seattle's gay-pride parade in jeopardy

Organizers are now facing at least $102,000 in debt after moving the festival to Seattle Center and the parade to Fourth Avenue last year.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Supporters of the annual Seattle Pride parade and festival, a tradition here for 32 years, are scrambling to salvage the splashy June celebration after the group that organizes it said it may be forced to bail.

"We don't know" that there will be Pride festivities this year, said Weston Sprigg, vice president of Seattle Out and Proud.

He said the group's dozen or so volunteers are exhausted, and at a meeting today will consider several options, including canceling the June 24 event.

"People can still be proud; ... it just means we're tired."

Each June, in cities across the country, gay communities sponsor festivities to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York that marked the start of the modern gay-rights movement.

Seattle's Pride celebration, which began in 1975, has become one of the largest in the country.

Traditionally, it has included a festival at Volunteer Park and a parade along Broadway, both on Capitol Hill, the heart of Seattle's gay community.

But organizers are now facing at least $102,000 in debt after moving the festival to Seattle Center and the parade to Fourth Avenue last year — a move that was met with strong protest by some in the gay community.

More than 200,000 people attended last year's celebrations, but Seattle Out and Proud didn't make enough money from sponsorships and donations to cover expenses, which were far greater at Seattle Center than when the events were on Capitol Hill.

"It's successful with attendees, it's successful visually and it's successful politically," Sprigg said. "It's just not successful financially."

That the celebration could be canceled outright has gay activists and supporters scrambling to save it in some form.

Taking the lead is Capitol Hill-based LGBT Community Center, which last year organized a march and music festival called Queerfest as a way to accommodate supporters who wanted to keep Pride weekend festivities on Capitol Hill.

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Queerfest drew between 20,000 and 30,000 people, said Shannon Thomas, executive director of the community center.

This year, even before it learned Seattle Out and Proud might cancel Seattle Pride, the LGBT Community Center obtained a license to hold Pride festivities June 23.

With so much unknown, "we've not formalized what those now might be," Thomas said. "We're sad to see their announcement but excited by what the results could be. We're figuring out a strategy for how we will become involved."

In recent years, as Seattle Pride began attracting hundreds of thousands of attendees, Volunteer Park became too cramped, and organizers said it was difficult to accommodate people with disabilities. The nature of the celebration had also evolved, they said, catering to families while also retaining longtime features such as the topless "Dykes on Bikes."

Seattle Out and Proud signed a three-year contract with the city to move the event to Seattle Center in 2006.

On the surface, it appeared a huge success. Then the city sent a $97,000 bill — a figure that came as a surprise to some Seattle Out and Proud members — and letters asking for a payment plan.

After months passed, city officials in February threatened to cancel the contract to hold the event at Seattle Center this June. The city has tacked interest and penalties onto the bill.

In February, Seattle Out announced it would partner with event organizer Dave Meinert of IES Productions, which would organize the festival and pay $50,000 of the group's debt. Meinert did not return calls seeking comment.

Sprigg doesn't think IES will still pay the debt, and John Merner, deputy director at Seattle Center, says he is sending the bill to the city's legal department for collection.

"An event of this scale requires considerable sponsorship and I think with all the controversy swirling around Pride these past couple of years made it hard to secure that sponsorship," Merner said. "The ideal outcome now would be that the community come back together around this effort."

At a City Council briefing Monday morning, Councilmember Sally Clark said organizers probably were ill-prepared for the move to Seattle Center.

"The city may have to think about how to support festivals if we want them to grow bigger," Clark said.

The LGBT Community Center's Thomas said she's confident it can pull off an event the scale of Seattle Pride.

"We're committed to making sure a Pride celebration occurs," she said. "If we step up, we want to have a very viable plan in place."

Those involved in organizing Pride events in the past said a successful event costs $50,000 or so.

George Bakan, editor of the Seattle Gay News, said, "there's probably $20,000 to $30,000 that can flow from businesses in a matter of days if the community center decides to take the lead and organize a major Capitol Hill Pride day."

And Capitol Hill loyalists welcomed news that Seattle Pride might return there.

Robert Sondheim, co-owner of Rosebud, said his restaurant witnessed a 10 percent decline in business during Pride weekend last year after the parade and festival moved.

"I've always been an advocate of keep Pride on the Hill," Sondheim said. Moving it downtown "is like having the Fremont Solstice downtown; it loses its meaning.

"Personally, I like it here better. As a business owner, I really want it here."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2204 or schan@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Young contributed to this report.

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