An Iowa chapel taps into the growing but shifting gay marriage business

KEOKUK, IOWA • It’s easy to miss the “gay chapel” on Main Street.

The sign out front says Boone’s Overstock, referring to the eclectic music collection inside, notably albums from the 1970s and ‘80s.

But the vinyl records business never took off and is now being liquidated, the remaining stock relegated to the back of the store.

Just inside the front doors, to the right, is an altar with a cross and large Bible opened to First Corinthians.

A couple of fake plants sit on the floor nearby.

Granted, it’s not much of a chapel. Not yet anyway. But Matt Hunt, the record store owner, hopes to grow his new business of providing a spot to hold same-sex weddings.

He admits, however, he should have acted sooner.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Iowa for more than four years, with about 6,000 licenses issued. But Hunt, pastor at St. Paul United Church of Christ in this small river town, didn’t officiate a ceremony until three months ago when he was asked for the first time to do so.

Now, a big chunk of his prospective business could be lost to neighboring Illinois.

On Wednesday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation making his state the 16th to legally recognize same-sex marriages. The law takes effect June 1.

As the political landscape of same-sex marriage shifts nationwide, Hunt and his small wedding chapel tell the lesser-known story of gay marriage’s economic impact.

In state after state where the marriages have been legalized, the wedding and travel industries have responded — often swiftly — to cater to a new customer base.

But as they have done so, they’ve also tapped into a fleeting market — where a neighboring state’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage can slice off new business.

Now, as Illinois enters the fray, an economic impact study estimates that in the first three years of extending marriage to same-sex couples, wedding business will increase by $74 million, with a bump of $29 million for the tourism industry. Tax revenue would increase by $8.5 million.

The study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA’s law school, has done similar research on the 15 other states that have legalized same-sex marriage, including Iowa. In the first year that same-sex couples were able to marry in Iowa, 59 percent of the estimated 2,099 couples were from out of state, the most coming from Illinois and Missouri.

The result: $2.2 million was spent on wedding arrangements, and the institute estimated out-of-state couples generated an additional $1.6 million in tourism.

As more states legalize same-sex marriage, the wedding business is expected to see an uptick. But it doesn’t necessarily mean tourism dollars will always follow, said Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“There’s a lot of competition for those people now,” Badgett said of same-sex couples. “And Hawaii has kind of upped the ante. Who wouldn’t want to get married and honeymoon in Hawaii”?

Same-sex marriage starts Dec. 2 in the Aloha State. A University of Hawaii researcher has said the marriages will boost tourism by $217 million over the next three years.

But for those in the Midwest looking for something cheaper and closer to home, options are greater today than they were when Iowa approved same-sex marriage in April 2009. In August, same-sex couples began to marry in Minnesota; in seven months, Illinois will follow.

Badgett said as long as Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota “can convince people from Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and other states not far away to come, there will be tourism and wedding dollars.”

And states with same-sex marriage can always count on a large percentage of weddings to be from their residents, she said.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 23,049 same-sex couples live in Illinois. Of those couples, a Williams Institute report estimates that 50 percent of them will choose to marry in the first three years, a pattern that has been observed in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

An Iowa couple, Kenny Fritz and Scott Stevens, saw early on that there was money to be made from same-sex marriages. Since 2009, they have run the website iowasgayweddingplanner.com. The site was started by two straight men who sold it to Stevens, 34.

On the site, couples can find gay-owned or gay-friendly businesses to help them put together a wedding, including wedding planners.

“If they want, they can go on and call the vendors. Or if they don’t want to deal with it, they can call us and we’ll get one of our wedding planners to handle it from setup to tear-down,” said Fritz, 32, who handles marketing and communications for the site.

Revenue is generated by ads on the site. The focus is on small, local businesses.

“We’ve never had anyone say anything negative,” Fritz said of businesses. “I was kind of shocked. I had reservations on how I was going to speak on it at first. But I can truthfully say that when I tell them (the site) is for same-sex couples, they say, ‘Money is money.’”

The site also provides a list of every county courthouse in Iowa and information on how to get a marriage license.

Earlier this year, Fritz and Stevens launched a similar site for Minnesota. An Illinois version should be available in a few weeks.

“We’re already working on it with our sales team,” said Fritz.

But as they move into the Land of Lincoln, they will find competition.

Equality Illinois, an organization devoted to advancing gay rights, has on its website a “2013 Same Sex Wedding Planning Guide.” The 30-page guide helps with everything from “picking an officiant” to “planning your honeymoon.” It is supplemented with ads from Chicago-area businesses.

But that will change soon, said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. Volunteers are working throughout the state to find more businesses to add to the directory, he said.

In addition, Equality Illinois is holding statewide “marriage forums” including a stop Dec. 17 at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. The forums are designed to provide more information on the new marriage law and give a platform to those with questions, Cherkasov said.

At the offices of the Tourism Bureau IllinoisSouth, there have been no formal discussions yet on promoting same-sex marriages in the Metro East, said marketing manager Scott Winter.

“From our end of the world, it’s a nonfactor at this point. It’s still so new,” Winter said.

As for Hunt, he will continue to market his new chapel in Keokuk, charging $235 for his services and use of the space. He’ll need to do at least two weddings a month to cover the $450 rent.

Hunt has not overseen same-sex weddings at his UCC church, not wanting to run afoul with church leaders. He said not all are on board with same-sex marriage. Until he has the formal approval of those who hired him about two years ago, he will officiate off site.

He is convinced there is still a market for gay couples who want a place to hold a small ceremony officiated by a pastor, but outside of a traditional church environment.

He knows many churches don’t approve of gay marriage and that some gays have left their churches feeling unaccepted.

“I want to create a safe space, to make church relevant,” Hunt said. “Maybe that’s all they want. It’s a way for me to reach out.”

Read the article from St Louis Post Dispatch.