After 2012's Charleston Pride Festival, the organizers sent a survey to its vendors, sponsors, and e-mail list. The questions covered everything from entertainment to vending to the festival's location in North Charleston's Park Circle neighborhood and at Riverfront Park. About 75 percent of respondents wanted to see the festival move downtown.
So this year, Pride is giving the people exactly what they want. Set for Aug. 3, the annual Charleston Pride parade and rally will now take place in the heart of the city it's named after, the capstone of a week of festivities.
"They feel like the Pride celebration is about being very public and being out in the open instead of being closeted, and they really felt like marching down King Street in Charleston would give us a lot more visibility, a louder voice so to speak, than marching in Park Circle in North Charleston," explains Rob Lewis, the chairman of Charleston Pride Festival, Inc. "If our organization is trying to make an impact in the community, then we need to be seen and heard."
If Columbia's S.C. Pride is any indication, the migration downtown should give Charleston Pride greater exposure. The Capital City's 24-year-old event has paraded through Main Street since its inception, but organizers moved the festival to downtown's Finlay Park for the first time last year, putting the LGBT community and its supporters smack-dab in front of the Statehouse. Jeff March, S.C. Pride president, says the move was a large leap forward for the organization. "Our festival, which estimated 6,000 to 8,000 attendees in Finlay Park prior to last year, drew an attendance of nearly 20,000, and that growth was just in one year," he says. And because of that increase, S.C. Pride was able to catch the attention of a half-dozen big-name sponsors for this year's fest, which they'll announce soon.
"Prides are more than a party," March adds. "They are our celebrations of our progression into mainstream and equality. And as far I can tell, our movement has succeeded by great strides over the past year alone."
Charleston Pride's new parade route will be more public than ever before, starting at Ann Street near Upper King and traveling to Broad Street before ending at Colonial Lake. While the previous stretch from East Montague to the Riverfront Park is sparsely populated, this new route places Pride front and center in the city's busiest district. As a result, Lewis expects to have a lot more participation from community groups, vendors, and attendees — they're expecting between 10,000 and 12,000 people this year.
"Once we announced the move downtown, we've just been overwhelmed with the response of not only people that just want to come out and see it, but a lot of the other businesses and so forth," he says. "They're like, 'Great. We want to be a part of this.'"
But the relocation also added a lot more factors to the planning process; the peninsula's busiest retail strip is logistically different than the few blocks of East Montague Avenue. "We don't have horse-drawn carriages in North Charleston," Lewis points out. "So we have to negotiate that. We are also going to be in an area where it's a lot bigger commercially, with a lot more traffic, so closing down the streets and getting police officers to man intersections, there's a lot more involved there than in our previous routes that we had in the Park Circle area."
And because the City of Charleston handles hundreds of events each year, Pride had to find room in its packed calendar — which is why the festival is occurring later in the summer than it did last year. It took four months of working with the city's special events committee, made up of representatives from the various departments in the city's government, to nail down exact routes, locations, and dates. Fortunately, the Pride representatives were able to meet the concerns of the City's fire and police departments and its neighborhood associations.
"With every event that we have in Charleston, we're excited to have them come to Charleston," says Stella Fruit, the committee's chair. "It's no different with any group. We look at the event and ask, can we make it work in Charleston?"
There are a few additional events planned for the lead up to the Pride Festival. The inaugural Charleston Rainbow Run is a 5K walk, run, and bike race that will take place at Mt. Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park on June 23. It will help raise money for Charleston Pride, and Lewis hopes to establish the race as a permanent annual Pride event. Then on July 4, the festival will host its fourth Emperor and Empress pageant at Club Pantheon.
"[July] is the big month for the Supreme Court to be making their decision regarding DOMA and Prop 8, so potentially we're going to have a huge reason to celebrate then," Lewis says. "The culmination of all of the changes hopefully just means that our message reaches a broader audience, which in turn hopefully affects this kind of national swing in their views toward equality."
For a complete Charleston Pride schedule, visit charlestonpridefestival.org.