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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
July 27, 2007

Akron visitors bureau cancels LGBT outreach

Akron--The Akron Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau announced it was going to try to woo LGBT tourism, then changed its mind, saying there was no interest.

The bureau canceled its July 25 LGBT Marketing Task Force meeting on the day after the Akron Beacon Journal reported the new program’s existence in a July 16 front page story.

Readers posted 381 comments on the Beacon Journal’s website, mostly against it, and some using terms like “child molesters” and “sinners.”

Jim Mahon, the bureau’s director of marketing and communications, said the comments did not factor at all in the decision to stop the project.

Mahon, who is openly gay, said the decision was made because only about 20 responses came back showing interest after 600 letters were sent out.

“That’s about a four percent response rate,” said Mahon, “and with any market segment, if you have no initial collaborators, you cannot go forward.”

“There has to be grassroots buy-in from the LGBT community,” said Mahon, “or the community will not be able to deliver on its promise.” Mahon called that problem “pinkwashing.”

So, marketing to LGBT tourists is, according to Mahon, officially off the table, but unofficially a discussion topic among LGBT leaders and the bureau.

“There are no immediate plans to pursue anything,” said Mahon, also countering that the next step “is regrouping and having a conversation with folks at the Pride Center and Equality Ohio to re-evaluate why there was a lack of response.”

Asked if the 20 who responded would have been enough to get the process started, Mahon replied, “That’s a good question.”

Mahon also said he could not tell whether there just happened to be low response to the invitations, or whether there was no interest in LGBT tourism.

The bureau is political. Half of its board of directors is appointed by the city, the other half are appointed by the county.

One of the respondents was Akron deputy mayor David Lieberth.

He did not return calls for comment.

Akron resident Chris Hixson said, “If you have 20 willing, why not continue to let that group of people go forward? Instead, they just shut down the dialogue.”

Hixson, who makes it clear that he is not a leader of or spokesperson for the LGBT community, unwittingly got entangled in the fracus over the bureau’s change of heart when an e-mail he sent to Mahon was made public by Mahon.

Hixson privately expressed concern that the bureau was putting the “cart before the horse.”

Referring to the Beacon Journal posts, Hixson wrote, “Dozens of people have weighed in with vitriol and hate speech--and the meeting hasn’t even been held yet. Are Akron’s true colors showing?”

“We travel where we know gay folks will be welcome--and not meaning welcome by the tourism bureau, but welcome by the community at large,” Hixson continued. “And this welcoming attitude must be authentic, and not manufactured through marketing.”

Hixson continued, “It troubles me that these efforts are going into trapping the gay dollar, while our city has absolutely no protections for its LGBT residents or visitors.”

While Summit County has included sexual orientation in its county worker non-discrimination policies since 2001, the city of Akron has no protections for workers or residents.

The city has rejected multiple attempts to pass a human rights ordinance with sexual orientation since 1999. Neither the city nor the county protect transgender individuals.

Mahon attached Hixson’s comments to the e-mail canceling the meeting with no other reason for the cancellation, saying, “Mr. Hixson’s remarks lead us to conclude that Greater Akron is neither ready nor prepared to pursue this matter further.”

Mahon backtracked on that three days later with another message saying, “The cancellation had nothing to do with comments I shared from Mr. Hixson.”

Mahon said the idea to market to LGBT tourists came from research presented to him at a conference in Montréal two years ago and from following the lead of other convention bureaus.

Cleveland’s tourism bureau rolled out a campaign to attract LGBT tourism earlier this year.

Mahon said the difference between the two efforts was that in Cleveland the LGBT community was mobilized around it.

Asked whether Akron will be watching to see if Cleveland is successful before it moves forward, Mahon said, “I would like to think that success [for Akron] is not determined by our sister city to the north.”

 

 

 

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