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Gay marriages expected to create wedding-related jobs in D.C.

By Ylan Q. Mui
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A01

Georgetown residents Christopher Cahill and Richard Marshall consider the $75,000 wedding that they're planning for June to be their own "personal stimulus package" for the District economy. And local businesses are already seeing the dollar signs.

They originally intended to have their wedding in Provincetown, Mass., in a state where same-sex marriages have been legal for nearly six years. But as District recognition crept closer to reality, they brought the party back home: They have contracted with nine local businesses to handle flowers and photography and party favors. About 130 guests are expected for their six-course dinner and reception at the downtown W Hotel. And Cahill said he expects their budget will only get bigger.

As the first same-sex couples married in Washington on Tuesday, the city is in the national spotlight as a pioneer in the gay-rights movement. But local officials say the historic event also has more practical implications for a city grappling with 12 percent unemployment: jobs. A study by the nonprofit Williams Institute predicted that legalizing same-sex marriage will create 700 jobs and contribute $52.2 million over three years to the local economy.

"We think it's a great opportunity to capitalize on groups that will be coming to Washington," said Elliott Ferguson, chief executive of Destination D.C., the city's tourism and marketing arm. "It's the nation's capital. It's symbolic."

Businesses are already lining up to cater to what Forbes estimated is a $16.8 billion national market. A local restaurant answered the phone Tuesday with "Happy gay marriage day."

Organizers of the city's first gay and lesbian wedding expo, planned for spring at the Renaissance Hotel in Dupont Circle, said hotels were jockeying to host the expo -- a dramatic change from the days when hotels were reluctant to put signs with same-sex couples' names in the lobby.

The Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown has sent out invitations for a celebratory cocktail party and is expecting 200 attendees along with tax attorneys, travel agents and other vendors who will mingle with the crowd. Other businesses are offering discounts as high as 50 percent to win over same-sex couples.

Mervis Diamond Importers launched a line of wedding rings targeted to gay couples just in time for the first "I dos." The 18-karat gold rings -- thick bands without diamonds and made to match -- run $1,000 to $3,000.

"We're in the business of love," said Jonathan Mervis, the company's digital strategist. "This is just an extension of what we've always been about."

Courting the gay community can be a delicate dance. Although many of the staples are the same -- invitation, cake, flowers -- there are subtle differences. Many of the couples are older than traditional newlyweds and have been together for years. Web sites have sprung up selling groom-groom and bride-bride cake toppers. Cahill said many vendors' standard forms ask for the names of the bride and groom.

"It's not like a prejudicial thing," he said. "It's the nature of it all."

At the same time, the issue of same-sex marriage remains highly politically charged -- the influential Catholic Archdiocese of Washington remains staunchly opposed to the law -- and businesses could risk alienating some customers. Hyatt Regency spokeswoman Tammy Hagin said one guest canceled a room reservation after seeing the hotel's promotion for discounts on gay weddings on its Web site. The ad has since been moved off the front page.

But the potentially lucrative market for gay weddings is tough to resist. The average heterosexual wedding cost $19,000 in 2009, according to the Wedding Report, a market research firm, though the average in the District was closer to $40,000. Marianne Puechl, co-founder of the Rainbow Wedding Network, said she generally estimates that gay marriages cost half of traditional ones because they tend to be smaller.

The Williams Institute study, issued last spring, predicted that nearly 2,000 District couples would marry if the option were available, generating about $18 million in new spending and $1 million in sales tax revenue over three years. The bigger windfall is expected to come from out-of-state couples -- particularly from New York -- seeking to get married in the nation's capital. The report estimated 12,500 such couples would travel to the District in three years, boosting the economy by $34.3 million and contributing $3.8 million in taxes. A 2004 Congressional Budget Office report estimated that legalizing same-sex marriage across the country would generate about $1 billion annually in new federal revenue through taxes and other fees.

Local companies are clamoring to claim what they hope will become a new revenue stream.

At MallowDrama bakery in Reston, owner Mary Supley Foxworth and her husband, David, are busy designing as many as 400 miniature wedding cakes for a same-sex group wedding March 20. The event is scheduled at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in downtown Washington, and organizer Mike Wilkinson said it could break a world record.

Supley Foxworth began advertising the bakery on Arlington County-based GayWeddings.com last summer and then began working on the group wedding. She and her husband are hoping to personalize each couple's mini cake, perhaps with their names or initials. Although she's providing the cakes for free, Supley Foxworth said she hoped it would be good advertising.

"We just wanted to make sure that any couples in our area knew about us," she said.

At the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown, the cocktail party next week ostensibly celebrates gay marriage in the District -- and showcases the exposed brick walls and vast windows of its chic Fahrenheit dining room. To reach its target audience, the hotel partnered with well-known figures in Washington's gay community to host the event and, hopefully, invite their friends.

"It's hard to pull out the divining rod and know exactly how it will go," said interior designer Skip Sroka, one of the hosts. "But as people look back, they'll recognize how strong the wave was that came through."

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