NIAGARA FALLS – When New York State legalized gay marriage almost two years ago, many in Niagara Falls saw the potential to rekindle its image as the “honeymoon capital.”
Most business owners and observers agree that the wedding industry experienced a surge right after same-sex marriages became legal but that the pace has since slowed.
“The initial surge, I think, is cooling,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.
Still, this doesn’t mean that long-term benefits have disappeared, either in Niagara Falls or Buffalo. Both cities have handed out more marriage licenses in each of the last two years than in the final year before the law passed. New York was the sixth of 13 states to allow same-sex marriage
Niagara Falls is still benefitting from the afterglow of the positive image as the site of the state’s first same-sex weddings, Dyster said. The images from that group ceremony – including having the falls lit up in rainbow lights – continue to have an effect that the mayor likened to Nik Wallenda’s nationally televised tightrope walk across the falls last year. It made a “big splash” for the city immediately and gave others a favorable image to remember.
“It’s difficult to track, but that doesn’t make it any less real,” Dyster said.
While some wedding and tourism-related businesses saw a spike in sales, others barely saw a blip.
In terms of hard numbers, the one measure that is tracked easily is marriage licenses. As of June 6, the City of Niagara Falls had issued 265 marriage licenses, compared with 297 at the same date last year, said City Clerk Carol A. Antonucci. In total, the city issued 937 licenses last year, compared with 952 in 2011.
In 2010, the last full year before same-sex marriages were legalized, the city issued 741 licenses. The city does not record the genders of those applying for marriage licenses.
In Buffalo, 1,690 marriage licenses were issued in 2010. In 2011, the year gay marriage was legalized, that number increased to 1,857. Last year, there were 1,868.
Because the lead time in planning a wedding is so long – couples usually have to book their wedding venue at least a year in advance – and the Marriage Equality Act was not passed until July 2011, a true uptick in numbers may not be recorded until the end of this year, some experts said. So far this year, 789 licenses have been issued in Buffalo.
When Claire B. Bacon took over Butterwood Desserts in what’s now Hotel @ the Lafayette in 2009, she didn’t have a single same-sex client celebrating a civil union. In 2010, she served one same-sex client’s “commitment ceremony.”
But after same-sex marriage became legal, she saw more and more same-sex couples during wedding consultations and began doing about three gay weddings a year out of roughly 100. This year, she has been involved with four gay weddings and expects to do at least two more by year’s end.
“It helps the whole wedding industry if people can celebrate their union legally,” Bacon said.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State led Shanie McCowen to start her own business in the Falls.
McCowen is the owner of Rainbow Bells, a full-service wedding planning firm. She bills it as a concierge/consultant service, which caters to same-sex marriages.
After the law went into effect in late July 2011, McCowen went to the Small Business Administration for some guidance, even though she had worked most of her life in hospitality.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said McCowen, who described herself as a “lifelong party planner.”
As of late May, McCowen had booked 27 weddings for this year, compared with about 40 for all of last year.
McCowen, who employs her own photographer and assistant, books most of her events in Niagara Falls, with a lot of them at the Red Coach Inn. She also uses a florist and bakery in town.
The average wedding that she books in Niagara Falls involves three or four rooms for three nights, McCowen said. She said she booked between 200 and 300 rooms last year, just at the Red Coach. One of her biggest bookings was for a couple from Michigan who needed 30 rooms for five days.
She said that about 60 percent of her business comes from people who live in the surrounding states, in places close enough to drive, though couples have come from as far away as Texas, California and Colorado, and one couple came all the way from Australia.
Now, nearly two years in, the amount of business has exceeded her expectations, she said. “My phone rang the first day my website was up,” she said.
McCowen said she’s in the preliminary stages of looking to set up her own bed-and- breakfast.
Falls tourism officials have called same-sex marriage an “economic driver,” with an overall increase in marriages in Niagara Falls between 30 and 35 percent. Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. has established a page on its website promoting the opportunities to hold gay weddings in the area.
Same-sex marriages still need to be marketed, with travel packages specifically offered, said Michelle Blackley, communications manager for the agency, who has hosted national and international travel writers, as well as writers from gay publications, who were interested in exploring Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination.
“It’s all about getting the word out and showing the world what we have here,” Blackley said.
Sally A. Fedell, owner of the Falls Wedding Chapel on Rainbow Boulevard, saw some of that increase, experiencing a rush of business after New York’s law went into effect. She saw her business spike by 20 percent, but the overall increase is now about 15 percent.
“It’s gone down a little, but I think that’s expected,” Fedell said.
With other states legalizing gay marriages, many couples no longer have to travel for it to occur, though the Falls still works for people who want a destination wedding, Fedell said.
Most businesses have been so consumed with keeping their doors open and paying taxes that they’re probably not thinking about trying to do anything to capitalize on the same-sex marriage market, said Kory M. Schuler, director of government affairs for the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce.
Several factors make same-sex marriage almost a non-issue, Schuler said. For one thing, businesses don’t want to come across as pandering. Also, on a societal level, same-sex marriage is “almost becoming second nature,” he said, questioning what happens once something becomes so mainstream that it’s no longer novel.
“We’re still left with the age-old question of how to rekindle Niagara Falls as the honeymoon capital,” Schuler said.
But Dyster takes an even bigger view, looking beyond just the immediate economic benefits of attracting gay couples.
The mayor said he hopes that same-sex marriages give the city a long-term reputation as a tolerant and progressive city, not just to same-sex couples, but for ethnic minorities and religious groups.