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Ybor City's rainbow of revival
A coalition of gay and gay-friendly businesses is changing Ybor City's west end commercial district.
By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007
By 12:30 Sunday morning, the line waiting to get into G. Bar at 1401 E. 7th Ave. stretched to the gravel parking lot down the block. Saturday had a Halloween theme, Haunted Hunks.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
TAMPA -- Once the picture of rowdy nightlife and restaurants and shops, much of Ybor City is now home to empty clubs and storefronts, victims of a business slump. But on the commercial strip's west end, signs of life are stirring. New bars enjoy instant popularity through word of mouth. A nearby hotel uses a special discount rate to attract a certain niche. And a novelty shop with its rainbow wind chimes and Judy Garland posters is doing quite well.
Welcome to GaYbor, an emerging haven for gays and lesbians in the core of Tampa Bay's signature entertainment strip.
In time, organizers hope, GaYbor will be a place where gays can comfortably walk the streets holding hands, where those questioning their sexuality can safely find answers.
It's growing fast and, according to the newly formed GaYbor District Coalition, it's here to stay.
Five gay businesses -- four that opened in the last year -- sit within a few blocks of each other, and two more gay bars are said to be moving to the area soon.
The coalition consists of more than 35 gay and straight businesses and organizations across the Tampa Bay area, including about 18 members within the Ybor strip.
They want to attract more gay and gay-friendly businesses, as well as gay tourists and patrons from Pinellas, Pasco and beyond. The city is uninvolved in the effort, which is being led and marketed by a group of gay men hoping to bring the party back to the entertainment district.
"Who else can do a better job of cleaning up Ybor," said coalition president Carrie West, "than a bunch of gay business owners?"
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At a tourism marketing company in Philadelphia, a news release from Tampa recently came across Jeff Guaracino's desk.
"Businesses and residents have united to create a gay district called the GaYbor District in the west end of the Ybor City National Landmark Historic District," the release began. "A gay district signals a tolerant and progressive community that will attract the creative industries Tampa is so desperately seeking."
Guaracino, vice president of public relations, has partnered with the city of Philadelphia to promote its gay district for the past four years.
"I've been watching the Tampa-St. Pete market for a while and have felt that it's ripe for something like this," he said. "I really applaud the idea."
In Philadelphia, gay tourists brought in $153 for every $1 spent on marketing since the launch of the aggressive 2003 tourism campaign "Philadelphia -- Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay," Guaracino said. Within the 15-block "gayborhood," as it's commonly called, street signs bear rainbow decals and retail shops, hotels and bars strive to make gay travelers comfortable.
Gay districts and gayborhoods, which include housing, started to evolve in the 1970s and are now commonplace in some major cities. In places such as San Francisco and New York City, gayborhoods are becoming passe, as gays and lesbians integrate into the mainstream.
But in conservative areas, particularly in the South and Midwest, gay districts are still coming around. In Spokane, Wash., a gay district faltered, despite a massive publicity campaign.
But Tampa's efforts might work, said Marvin Reguindin, a leader of the Spokane district.
"You need to have someplace where there are no fears of walking down the street, hand in hand or openly displaying affection for someone of the same sex," he said. "It would also allow those questioning their sexuality to come into an area like a gay district and, I guess the word would be, do the research."
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The Tampa coalition is young, about 3 months old, and so far has faced little resistance.
"The main thing we're hearing is, 'Do you have to call it GaYbor? Can't you call it the West End or something?'" said Tony LaColla, a coalition member and an Ybor City neighborhood association president.
GaYbor, however, was already the unofficial name for the area where three gay clubs and MC Film, a gay novelty shop, set up on the west end within the past year. Another gay club, Flirt, has been around several years. The coalition envisions expanding the district from Sixth Avenue north to Ninth, and from 13th Street east to 18th, West said.
Vince Pardo, the city's Ybor City manager for economic and urban development, attended one of the coalition's monthly meetings and heard "a lot of positive thoughts and creative energy."
Pardo said he hasn't discussed GaYbor with city officials.
"The only negative feedback I've heard from the community is the fear of relabeling Ybor from a historic district to gay district," he said.
Columbia Restaurant's fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart has seen trends come and go. He doesn't like the name GaYbor, but thinks a gay district might send more customers his way.
"You know what I say? Welcome to Ybor City," Gonzmart said. "Hopefully some of them will stay around for a while."
West, who owns MC Film with his partner, moved his business back to Tampa from St. Petersburg this summer. The two started the coalition, which they now promote through a Web site and a column they write for the statewide gay magazine Buzz. They give maps to customers, marking Ybor businesses friendly to gays.
Business owners are enjoying this new clientele. Gays and lesbians shop in their stores, sleep in their hotels and eat in their restaurants before or after clubbing.
At Rock N Sports Bar & Grill on 15th Street, many of the patrons are gay men. And thank goodness, said owner Franja Eastling, who joined the coalition.
"They've helped our business tremendously."
At the Hampton Inn and Suites on Seventh Avenue and 13th Street, a "play and stay" discount rate has been advertised heavily to the gay community. The result was a $55,000 surge in revenue in August and September.
"It's the people in the gay community that have rolled with it," hotel manager Becky Fox said. "We do get people coming in and asking for the 'gay rate,' and we know what they're talking about."
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Over the last 30 years, Ybor evolved from a bohemian arts district to, more recently, a shopping and entertainment district. All the while, gay life has been an undercurrent. One of Ybor's first disco clubs, El Goya, was gay. It later became the gay club Tracks. It's now Czar, which draws a mixed clientele.
The undercurrent gained strength, as techno megaclubs and chain restaurants closed in recent years. Even Centro Ybor, marketed as an upscale shopping and restaurant hub for adults and families, recently sold after foreclosure.
If the coalition's vision takes off, the area surrounding Centro Ybor would be part of the gay district.
Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, envisions small venues with live music, boutiques, hotels, art galleries and a lunchtime business crowd.
"I think if word gets out to the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community that Ybor is a great place to work and play, that could be a pretty positive thing," he said. "They network extremely well."