The leadership of Broward County's multibillion-dollar tourism industry demanded Thursday that Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle stop his attacks on homosexuality even as he pressed them to change a marketing campaign meant to attract gay tourists.
They said Naugle's comments over the past two months have damaged the reputation they carefully created in the two decades since the area's role as college Spring Break capital ended. They not only cited international news coverage and the deluge of calls and e-mails from concerned tourists, but said one gay-oriented convention has been put on hold.
Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Naugle at Thursday's meeting of the Tourism Development Council. "The anger and the mischaracterization and the hurtful, mean-spirited and wrong-hearted rhetoric has to stop."
Although Naugle vowed not to back down, the controversy could cost him his seat on the tourism board. County commissioners are drafting legislation to oust him.
Naugle depicted himself to tourism officials Thursday as on a crusade to stem the spread of AIDS and stop public sex. He asked them to no longer list Club Fort Lauderdale in its gay vacation planner.
He described the business, off Broward Boulevard, as a gay bathhouse even though it promotes itself as a private spa and gym for men that rents dressing rooms or lockers to members. The manager of the club could not be reached for comment.
"One of the things my dad taught me is it's not always about the money; it's about doing what's right," Naugle said.
It turns out that Naugle is six months late.
Grossman said Club Fort Lauderdale — along with all other business listings — were dropped from next year's brochure in March when the visitors bureau decided to change the focus to upcoming events that would interest gay tourists. She noted the club is licensed by the city and was listed among fitness centers in the 2007 planner.
Since June, Naugle has charged the city has a problem with gay sex in public restrooms, said gays are unhappy and contended the gay Stonewall Library should not be housed in a city building because its collection contains pornography.
His most recent comments question the focus on gay tourism considering the high rate of HIV infection in the area. The comments have been reported by The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and even a Dutch paper, as well as blogs across the Internet. And that has tourism executives increasingly nervous and angry at Naugle.
The Fort Lauderdale area has long ranked as one of the nation's top vacation choices among gay tourists. About 950,000 gays and lesbians were among the 10.4 million people to visit Broward last year and spent an estimated $1 billion.
Gay travel emerged as a part of the visitors bureau's marketing focus in 1997. The agency will spend about $450,000 this year on advertising and other marketing directed at gay tourists.
"In one fell swoop, you're destroying everything we've worked on," Ina Lee, publisher of the TravelHost guides to Fort Lauderdale, told Naugle. "I'm asking you to stop. Please stop."
Virginia Sheridan, head of a New York public relations firm that works for the visitors bureau, told the tourism board that the controversy has reached a worrisome stage. She said the effects from the controversy could spread from tourism to other economic areas, such as business relocation decisions.
"There's a tremendous amount of confusion, surprise and lack of understanding," said Sheridan, who monitors media as part of her consulting contract with the bureau.
Lee said a gay-oriented convention has been put on hold that was to draw 200 attendees and result in $250,000 in business. She would not identify the group because hoteliers are still trying to persuade it to come this fall. Also, at least 100 people have e-mailed to cancel vacations or say they are thinking of going elsewhere.
One of them, accountant John Pearson, of Santa Rosa, Calif., said he plans to go to Palm Springs rather than Fort Lauderdale for a week because of Naugle.
"I certainly don't have to spend my money in his city or state," Pearson wrote tourism officials.
Grossman said Naugle's comments have affected other segments of tourism as well. She said a family attending an upcoming children's sports event called, worried that there was rampant public sex in Fort Lauderdale. She also said multicultural tourism could be hurt if the area gains an image as not welcoming diversity.
Although some tourists may shun Fort Lauderdale because of Naugle's comments, others say they are encouraged to visit.
Bill Federer, a historian and author from St. Louis, wrote the mayor in late July, praising his "courage" for addressing a difficult issue.
"Your decision will attract more families to vacation in Fort Lauderdale as it will be a healthier place," he wrote.
To hold its share of gay tourism dollars, the visitors bureau is considering a new public relations campaign to address the controversy. And a vote by county commissioners on removing Naugle from the tourism board could come as early as Tuesday.
Commissioner Stacy Ritter said Naugle's comments have been counter to the board's mission and are cause to remove him before his term ends next spring. She is drafting legislation to take that unusual step. "They are supposed to promote tourism," she said. "It is our No. 1 industry, and Mayor Naugle is doing a disservice to promoting tourism."
Scott Wyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4511.