Now that gays and lesbians can get married in North Carolina, Watty Newsome wants to outfit them with dresses and tuxedos.
He said he and his staff at the Concord Wedding Center, which he owns with his wife, Angela, are prepared to handle a mob of same-sex couples seeking to take advantage of what his business has to offer.
“I feel real confident there’s going to be an abundance of business for the first year or two, at least,” said Newsome in response to the state’s ban on same-sex marriage being struck down as unconstitutional. “All of them that couldn’t (marry) and had to wait, here’s their opportunity, and they’re going to jump on it.”
Charlotte-area venue owners, photographers, bakers and others say it’s too soon to predict whether they’ll see a flood of gay couples seeking their services for wedding ceremonies. But some vendors say they do expect to see a bump in business.
A recent report by the Williams Institute, a gender research think tank at the University of California School of Law, estimates that more than $64 million will be added to North Carolina’s local and state economy because the ban was lifted, with the money coming from ceremonies, sales taxes and tourism.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Billy Maddalon, a former Charlotte City Council member who owns The Morehead Inn near uptown Charlotte and the VanLandingham Estate in Plaza Midwood. “I think industrywide, we can expect a pretty big bump from it.”
The VanLandingham Estate hosts between 50 to 60 weddings and receptions a year. Within the last 20 years, between 20 and 30 same-sex couples have had commitment ceremonies or parties there, he said.
“We will for sure market to the LGBT community,” said Maddalon, who is gay. “They’ll need to be marketed to, just like any other community.”
He expects some couples to eschew “traditional trappings of weddings” and wed in front of a judge to save money or avoid venues where historically they were not welcome.
“It’s going to take years for a lot of the traditional venues to reinvent themselves to where LGBT people feel comfortable,” he said. “Not just spending our money there, but going there.”
A year after same-sex marriage became legal in New York City, officials reported in 2012 that the city experienced a $259 million economic boon from hotel revenues, ceremony costs and issuing marriage licenses, according to marketing and tourism organization NYC & Co.
In 2009, the Williams Institute published a report showing that same-sex marriages boosted Massachusetts’ economy by $111 million in the 4 1/2 years after gay marriage was legalized.
Overall, U.S. weddings are a $52 billion industry, according to a 2014 report from IBISWorld, a research firm.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority has not estimated the economic impact on the city in wake of the ban falling, but “we do realize this could positively impact the local economy,” said Laura White Hill, visitors authority spokeswoman.
‘Busier than I already am’
Nate Turner owns Your Custom Catering & Events and said he’s already booked a same-sex wedding for next year. His marketing plan: Buy newspaper ads and use social media to let gay couples know he’ll plan an in-state wedding just for them.
“I think I will actually be even ... busier than I already am,” he said.
Tina Pigg hopes she’ll receive orders for two male figurines standing side-by-side atop a wedding cake.
Through her 7-year-old business, clayinaround, Pigg makes polymer clay cake toppers and sells them through online retailer Etsy. She’s sold a same-sex cake topper to a female couple before but hasn’t had any requests since. Now Pigg is hoping for more sales and is boosting her marketing efforts.
“I do hope it would bring in a little more local business,” Pigg said. “Local businesses ... wedding vendors, in general, are probably going to see an uptick.”
Newsome said direct marketing to same-sex couples likely won’t be necessary.
“We’re open to all; we don’t discriminate,” he said. “Black, white, Indian, gay or straight, I’m here to do a business. All money’s green in my eyes.”
Some Charlotte business owners are unsure whether the end of the ban will generate more profits. Todd Murphy, who has run an events planning business for the past 30 years, is skeptical.
“I would say maybe a small uptick, but I would not say ‘break open the dam,’ ” said Murphy, who is openly gay. He has planned about 20 same-sex receptions and ceremonies within the last three decades – “very, very few,” in his opinion.
Many of those couples, he said, were together for years and went to another state to get married, unwilling to wait for the state to recognize their union, particularly after Amendment One passed in 2012.
Amanda Carroll, owner of online jewelry company Sage Resource LLC, has crafted custom cuffs for a gay friend who married in Maryland.
Mainstream business owners might be reluctant to market to a specific audience, Carroll said.
“You will have a lot of businesses that don’t want to offend anyone on either side,” she said. “To say, ‘I’m going to market specifically to same-sex couples ... then I’m going to offend half of the Bible Belt.’ ”
Others may see things differently. “If (businesses) don’t market to same-sex couples and other people do, then that’s going to put some competitive pressure on them,” said M.V. Lee Badgett. She’s director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Since North Carolina’s ban was lifted after the height of summer wedding season, many couples who want to marry between May and September next year will spend the interim months planning. Now’s the time, Badgett said, for wedding vendors to “be there in front of them saying, ‘We welcome your business.’ ”
A study by Prudential Financial shows that the average median household income of American LGBT people in 2012 was $61,500, compared with the national median average of $50,000. The study also shows that about 40 percent of gay men and 25 percent of lesbians spend more than $500 a month on discretionary items after household expenses and necessities are paid.
“If you wait until next summer when the weddings are already happening, it’s too late,” Badgett said.
Tonya Price has no plans to wait. For five years, her photography business, Pop Rock Photography, has catered to same-sex weddings specifically. She plans to build on that reputation.
“I just knew it was going to be legal everywhere,” she said.
LGBT-friendly all along
Still, other business owners hope their open support of LGBT people works in their favor.
Last year, Heather McDonnell, who owns Cupcrazed Cakery in Fort Mill, S.C., baked more than 200 cupcakes whose image went viral. Her marriage equality cupcakes, featuring an equal sign on a red-frosting background, landed on television news shows in Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; and Dallas; and were featured in Parade magazine. McDonnell said the coverage outpaced any attention she received from appearances on the Food Network.
“I hope the people actually remember the fact that, from day one, I supported this,” she said. With the ban lifted, “I hope to have lots of customers, happy ones.”
Former Superior Court Judge Shirley Fulton has owned the Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights – a popular wedding venue – since 2001. In that time, she could only recall two same-sex ceremonies taking place there – a reception and a civil union after the couples went to other states to tie the knot.
The ban might mean a boost in business, Fulton said, but “it’s hard to tell.”
“I am friendly with the gay community,” she said. “I expect because of our prior relationship, I would be looked upon as a place that’s friendly.”
No special gimmicks or promotions are in the works for attracting gay couples, she said.
“I would not do anything different,” she said. “I just think people should be treated as people and not labeled.”