Rainbow flags may hang from light poles in the Garland District next month, but some businesses are wary of potential economic fallout at a time when LGBTQ issues remain at the center of a political divide.
The effort is part of a larger move that proponents say celebrates diversity and equality in the eclectic business district.
To appease everyone involved, the North Hill Neighborhood Council struck a compromise: The Pride flags would be affixed to light poles unless a business owner objects to having one directly in front of their shop. The Pride flags originally were planned for eight of the Avista-owned poles along Garland Avenue. If Avista approves the new plan, the flags will go up on May 31 or June 1.
“It’s not the statement I was looking for,” said Steve Ogden, a self-described community organizer and neighborhood resident who led the effort. “I was looking for some impact.”
After a heated North Hill Neighborhood Council meeting last Thursday, community members took a series of votes on the Pride flags.
Many Garland Business District members were in favor of the flag idea. Not everyone was, though, according to Julie Shepard, president of the business district.
“There are some businesses that feel that they don’t want to be asked to support or not support one way or the other,” Shepard said. “We certainly want to be accepting all nationalities, all genders, all choices. We just don’t want to be picking and choosing.”
Rather than seek the approval of the business district, proponents of the Pride celebration instead asked the North Hill Neighborhood Council to approve hanging the flags.
The flags were approved 15-1 during the neighborhood council’s April meeting without input from the business owners who were opposed to them.
The idea occurred to Ogden last year after what he characterized as a successful return of Spokane’s downtown Pride celebration and Pride in Perry, held in the South Perry District, following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know how it all got started, except I’ve been gay for 50 years,” Ogden said during a conversation at Rocket Bakery on Garland Avenue. “Come post-COVID, we all have lots of thoughts. If they have Pride on Perry, why can’t we have Pride on Garland?”
According to Ogden, he wanted to “shake the rug out” in the Garland District and show people that north Spokane was an inclusive place.
“I went to various businesses and told them what I wanted to do,” he said.
Almost everyone he asked supported the proposal for Pride flags, he said.
Rachael Robertson and Angela Hillson, who purchased the Garland Drinkery at the beginning of this year, were immediately on board.
The married couple had been looking for a change of pace from their day jobs when the watering hole went up for sale. They leapt at the chance to own it.
The two women don’t call the Drinkery a gay bar under their ownership, instead referring to it as “LGBTQ-friendly.”
“We want everybody to feel welcome,” Robertson said. “Our bar is your bar – as long as you come in with a good attitude and you’re kind and sweet, open-hearted and open-minded, this is your bar.”
The two wanted to elevate the bar from its reputation as a rough-and-tumble place known for cheap drinks to a bar where customers could also find cocktails and locally brewed beers.
“Bougie dive,” is the optimal phrase, Robertson said.
Ogden, Robertson and Hillson are reluctant to discuss the negative feedback they received from what they described as a vocal minority.
At one point, their Pride flag proposal on Garland Avenue was met with a counter-proposal for a patriotic observance during the month of June, Robertson said. Robertson, who is an Army veteran, said she was in favor of the proposal for Independence Day, or throughout the month of July, but not during Pride month.
“That’s where it’s trying to hide the bigotry,” she said.
“I would maybe understand more if it was a big Pride festival, but it was literally just proposing putting a couple flags up,” Hillson said.
The two also were told it would be inappropriate for children to see. Between the two of them, Hillson and Robertson have four children ages 5 to 15.
The two said they were baffled by the negative reaction.
“Not only does it bring new clientele and customers, which also brings money – we’re all small businesses trying to make it – we’re also letting people know they’re safe and they can be here,” Robertson said.
Hillson and Robertson instead set their sights on hosting their first “Rainbow Run Pub Crawl” on Garland Avenue on June 3. Every bar in the district is on board, Robertson said.
“We want everybody to feel welcome in this district, and I feel like this is a good way to start that, because we haven’t ever done anything like that,” said Kadra Evans, owner of the Little Noodle restaurant and Itty Bitty Buddha bar. “I have members of that community that work on my staff. I want them to know that they’re welcome to work here.”
The business owners opposed to the Pride flags have office space in the Garland Business District, but are not “walk-up business” with dining or retail space, Evans said.
“Those businesses aren’t necessarily bringing people into the district,” she said.
There are a significant number of people who identify as LGBTQ in the North Hill and Garland areas, but they aren’t very well connected, according to Ogden.
“We live in a diverse neighborhood, but I’m not sure of its inclusiveness,” said Ogden, who added that one of his Pride flags was stolen from his home and found burnt in an alley last year.
Ogden said he approached Avista about the proposal for the Pride flags in April. He brought the request on April 13 to the North Hill Neighborhood Council, which sought to place three types of Pride flags through the month of June. North Hill Neighborhood Council Chair Scot Webb’s involvement was crucial in wording the request, Ogden said.
“We did this to be inclusive and allow the most marginalized people to know they are welcome here,” said Webb, who also supported the proposal for the Pride flags.
Shepard, at the business district, said there are other business owners in the district who are upset because they didn’t feel like they were given adequate notice to vote on the request. She said she was disappointed by the way the situation was handled in April.
“It was not presented to us whether we wanted to or not,” she said.
Several business owners came to the May neighborhood council meeting to show their opposition.
Anyone who owns a business or lives in the North Hill neighborhood is allowed to vote during any neighborhood council meeting, according to the council’s bylaws. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s never been exploited in the past, Webb said.
The Pride flags were given a second vote after an hour of tense public comments during last week’s meeting, Webb said. The proposal to keep the flags won the day, but the amendment was added for some businesses to opt out.
“I think that was fair, and I think what was a good compromise,” Webb said.
So far, no one has opted out, Webb said.
However, Evans, who voted in favor of the flags, said the ordeal left her with a “little bit of a bad taste” in her mouth.
“This just kind of shows you a little bit who your neighbors are,” she said.
According to Shepard, the business district has been fortunate that only a few businesses on Garland Avenue left during COVID. Nearly two dozen businesses have opened up shop in the district in the last couple of years, not to mention the 60 new apartment units under construction at 3909 N. Wall St., she said.
“As soon as a new business space opens, it is sold,” she said. “It makes me a little nervous. I want it to continue to be priced for families.”
She wants to rock the boat as little as possible.
Webb is concerned about the changes to what he describes as a “blue collar, working class” neighborhood.
“Garland kind of prides itself on ‘eclecticness,’ ” Webb said. “There’s something for everybody here.”
For Webb, there’s no reason the neighborhood can’t also be inclusive of LGBTQ businesses and customers.
“We don’t have to scream louder than they do,” Robertson said. “We don’t have to physically fight. We just have to sit back and be kind to people.”