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Sonoma County Pride moves to Santa Rosa

by Heather Cassell

A performer holds a glitter ball at last year's Sonoma County Pride. Photo: Courtesy Sonoma County Pride
A performer holds a glitter ball at last year's Sonoma County Pride. Photo: Courtesy Sonoma County Pride  

Long held in Guerneville by the Russian River, Sonoma County Pride is making the move to the county's largest city for this year's celebration in June.

The organization announced that the 31st Sonoma County Pride parade and festival that will kick off Pride Month will take place at Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square June 1-3.

The Pride committee also unveiled the event's new website, http://www.sonomacountypride.org, in a February 5 news release announcing the change.

The move from Guerneville to centrally located Santa Rosa was due to dwindling attendance at Pride and competing events around the town along the river, organizers told the Bay Area Reporter.

"It's a big spread out county and there's a huge LGBT population," said Gary Carnivele, 57, a gay man who is the marketing and public relations committee chair for Sonoma County Pride. "It just makes sense to be in the heart of Sonoma County in the largest city of Sonoma County."

In 2010, a University of California demographer reported that Sonoma County has the second highest per capita percentage of residents living in same-sex relationships in the U.S., according to the release.

JD Donavon, president of Sonoma County Pride, said the move was in the interest of the event and the community.

"It was in better interest in Sonoma County as a whole," said Donavon, 52, a lesbian who lives in Guerneville and produces the annual Women's Weekend there in May.

Guerneville has been a gay getaway for decades, but hosting Sonoma County's annual Pride parade and festival proved to be a challenge for the riverside resort town. In recent years, Pridegoers expressed their frustration with the location and lack of accommodations, parking, and public transportation in feedback to committee members.

The committee members agreed, adding that the river town also wasn't conducive to host a festival due to the lack of space. It was also difficult to attract new board members and for them to attend meetings in Guerneville because of its location.

"Last year, we were surprised to see that attendance really dropped to under 1,000 people," said Carnivele.

Attendees said, "I love it, we just wish it were in more centrally located. It's too much to drive all the way from Sonoma or Petaluma to the river," he said, summarizing what attendees told the committee members.

A joyful welcome back for Pride
Santa Rosa provided an attractive opportunity to restore Sonoma County Pride's past glory and the event's potential future growth, organizers said. It's central with easy access, hotels, and plenty of space in the newly renovated Old Courthouse Square.

The multimillion-dollar project was completed last year to help revitalize Santa Rosa's downtown, reported the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

This won't be the first time Pride will be held in Santa Rosa. Sonoma County Pride called the city home for about 20 years and attracted some 4,000 Pridegoers, said Carnivele.

The Pride festival started in Windsor, moved to Santa Rosa, and then moved to Guerneville when the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence took over production nine years ago, said Carnivele, who is serving for the third time on the Pride board.

"It was at a very nice location. It was a lovely setting. It was right on the river and people could jump right into the river. It was wonderful, but parking is always an issue," said Carnivele, who noted that committee members always had it in the back of their minds that the event would return to Santa Rosa at some point.

Santa Rosa, where the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods were decimated by the wildfires last October, welcomed the Pride festival and parade back with open arms, officials said. The city's chamber of commerce, visitors' bureau, and other entities are doing everything they can to make the Pride event a success, Carnivele said.

"The city was just thrilled that we would be coming back," said Carnivele.

The committee has raised $27,000 of its $60,000-plus goal for this year's budget, with support from the city of Santa Rosa and Visit Santa Rosa, along with sponsors, said Pride organizers and Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa. The Pride board also added five new people since the committee decided to move the event to Santa Rosa, resulting in 10 members to help produce the event.

The organizers hope to attract upward of 4,000 Pridegoers from around the Bay Area and beyond, particularly with the easy public transit, such as the new Smart Train, and many hotel options, they said.

"We are very excited," Calkins said. "We hope that it has a chance to grow."

He added that Santa Rosa, and Sonoma County overall, continues to suffer from a lack of visitors due to a misperception that everything was destroyed by the wildfires.

Over the rainbow
Events like Sonoma County Pride will help show people that, "We still exist. Come up and enjoy the weekend," said Calkins.

The festival will kick-off June 1 with a show at the lesbian-owned Laugh Cellar with gay comedians Alec Mapa headlining and Justin Lucas opening; a pub crawl; and the unveiling of the North Bay's LGBTQI Historical Timeline.

On June 2, the parade will start at 11 a.m., making its way down Fourth Street and lead right into the festival at Old Courthouse Square, which opens at noon. The festivities will go on until 8 p.m.

The celebration will continue June 3 with a variety of events, including brunch and Outwatch, wine country's LGBTQI film festival, among other activities.

Festival headliners and a theme haven't been announced yet, said organizers.

Organizers said that they hope to hold an event in Guerneville and that they are reaching out to a variety of communities there, including families, seniors, transgender people, youth, and other groups to participate in the parade and have booths at the festival.

"Sonoma County Pride has to be open to everyone in Sonoma County," said Drue Mordecai, marketing director at Fountaingrove Lodge, which will have a float in the parade. "I believe that having it back in Santa Rosa will have a positive impact in the town. It will be more visible and easy to participate.

"I'm very glad that it is in Santa Rosa," he added.

For more information or to donate, sponsor, or volunteer for Sonoma County Pride, contact Bonnie Bryen, volunteer coordinator, or JD Donavon at jd@sonomacountypride.org or visit http://www.sonomacountypride.org or http://www.facebook.com/sonomacountypride.

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