Raising community awareness, and lots of cash, at Denver PrideFest

Denver's annual party and parade, the largest celebration of LGBT pride in the region, is way more than an extravagant block party: It pays for local LGBT programming all year long.

Denver PrideFest 2017 is this weekend, and in addition to the popular PrideFest Parade, guests will enjoy music, food, and some first-rate people watching. What many attendees don’t know is that they’ll be attending one of the biggest fundraisers in the city.

Last year, 380,000 folks turned out at Civic Center Park for the nation’s third largest pride festival, which brags the seventh largest pride parade in the country. The two-day event is also one of the largest free PrideFests in the United States, notes Rex Fuller, vice president of communications and corporate giving for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of Colorado, the nonprofit organization that has been producing Denver PrideFest since 1990.

PrideFest has expanded over the years to includes scores of different events, including an annual run. Photos provided by The Center.
In 2017, a new reality

The festival wasn’t always such a blowout party, especially in its early years before the era of GLBT rights. What sometimes gets lost in all the revelry of the present-day celebration is that Pride events served as organizing efforts for the gay community and as more subtle ways of raising broad awareness around serious issues of discrimination. They were smaller, and more daring back, in the day. Denver’s first PrideFest – held in 1975 – was little more than a few hundreds attendees gathering in Cheesman Park for a quiet picnic.

Today’s PrideFest is anything but quiet, and has relocated to Civic Center, the greenspace bordered by the State Capitol, the City and County Building, and the Denver Art Museum.

But Cheesman Park remains a pillar for the celebration, being the mid-point for Big Gay 5K, an out-and-back race taking off at Civic Center at 10 am on Saturday, June 17.  PrideFest’s first venue is also the start line for the big parade, featuring over 170 floats storming Civic Center by way of Colfax Avenue at 9:30 am on Sunday, June 18.

PrideFest draws about 380,000 people. They're all part of a big fundraiser. Photos provided by The Center.

If you haven’t been to Denver PrideFest yet, expect a colorful, joyous, and wild block party with more than a few poignant moments, too. Colorado-based installation artist Lonnie Hanzon, for example, will be stationed at the center of the activities, exhibiting a tribute sculpture for Gilbert Baker, the designer of the rainbow flag who passed away in March.

The fest expects moreover 200 retail, food, and beverage venders, and three stages: a dance stage with DJs, a Latin stage with cultural programming and live entertainment, and a center stage, too, where Grammy award winning singer Jennifer Holliday headlines at 3 p.m. on Sunday.  There’s also, worth noting, a Dogs in Drag Parade.

Behind the scenes

There’s no question: Denver PrideFest is one heck of a party. But the event’s presence is felt long after the party’s over. “Pride,” Fuller says, “Is what helps us keep the lights on.”

PrideFest positions itself as a family-friendly event. Photos provided by The Center.

The Center has hosted Denver PrideFest for nearly three decades. “It’s very unusual that a community center would take on this kind of event,” explains Debra Pollock, CEO for the Center. More often, pride celebrations are organized by freestanding entities and nonprofit groups formed solely for the purpose of producing the event.

In addition to pulling off PrideFest, the Center also provides year-round programming for more than 47,000 people. Key offerings include Rainbow Alley youth services, SAGE of the Rockies, which supports LGBT elders, and a series of social and support programs for transgender people.

What’s more, the Center houses the only legal project in Colorado dedicated solely to the equality and dignity of LGBT people. Through its advocacy, the Center plays a pivotal role in statewide initiatives to reduce harassment and discrimination while working to protect and further the legal rights of Coloradans with partnerships, educational initiatives, and legal referral services.

The operation runs out of a brick-and-mortar in Capital Hill, and requires 19 full-time employees plus 500 volunteers — and an operating budget of $2.1 million. Denver PrideFest accounts for 42 percent of those yearly expenditures, making it the Center’s largest annual fundraiser.

The event brings in over $1 million, and takes that much to produce. Permits cost a pretty penny, and then there are the fees associated with infrastructure, including tents and barricades. Security and cleanup are big endeavors, too, as is planning, which takes 22 volunteers upwards of eight months.

The Center’s staff members work on PrideFest and other programs throughout the year, Fuller says, adding, “And about 350 additional volunteers will work with us for the days of the festival.”

When it comes to PrideFest, the Center relies on several sources of revenue. Organizations and corporations pay $150 to $500 dollars to participate in the parade, and vendors shell out $400 to $1,000 for their space at the festival. Fees vary based on the organization, and are lower for nonprofits. The Center also makes money selling alcohol at the festival.

Denver PrideFest has forty corporate sponsors, too. Major support comes from Coors Light, Smirnoff, Xfinity, Wells Fargo, Nissan, Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, U.S. Bank, and Walmart.

PrideFest started as a picnic. Now, it brings in million for local businesses each year. Photos provided by The Center.Corporate sponsorship, Pollock says, is one indicator of how acceptance of LGBT people has increased locally. Thirteen years ago, when Pollock joined the Center, she says, “It was me calling up corporations and businesses, asking them to sponsor this event. Now,” she says, “They come to us.”

With Denver PrideFest, Pollock reiterates, 100 percent of the proceeds are funneled back into the local community, to serve the people who need it. But the festival’s impact goes way beyond the Center’s advocacy work.   

According to a 2009 study commissioned by the Center and performed by Birchhill Enterprises, Denver PrideFest has an estimated $25 million economic impact annually on Denver. In addition to spending at the festival, guests – 8 percent come from outside of a 50-mile radius of Denver – generate dollars for businesses throughout the city with parking fees, hotel stays, restaurant visits, and more. 

Cash is king, but for event organizers the heart of the festival is the feelings it brings to participants. “Even though we have greater acceptance today, it is still a time and a place where you feel completely comfortable,” Pollock explains. She remembers coming out in San Francisco in her twenties. “Even being there – even being in a place considered a haven at that period in time – you still had to negotiate what was safe. There was still a code,” she says, adding, “Pride has always been one of those places where you can be completely comfortable just being yourself.”

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