Recruitment in Azalea Park stands apart

By Emmet Pierce
STAFF WRITER

January 12, 2003

Wesley Combs, a national expert on marketing to gay and lesbian consumers, has never heard of anything quite like Azalea Park.

While gay gentrification has become common in older American neighborhoods, it's highly unusual for a predominantly straight community to aggressively recruit gay residents, he said.

"If they value diversity that much, this is a community that teaches color blindness, teaches sexual orientation blindness," he said. "They are leveraging what they perceive to be an asset in gay and lesbian people who may be interested, more than the average consumer, in rebuilding communities."

Combs, president of Washington, D.C.-based Witeck-Combs Communications, has built a career on helping corporations reach out to gay patrons. Past clients include Ford Motor Co. and American Airlines, he noted.

"We view ourselves as a bridge between the community and corporate America, providing a channel of communication that allows the needs of each side to be met."

Survey research shows that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers are "style focused," he said. "They often choose to live in older neighborhoods, where homes have more architectural character. There is an interest trying to restore the beauty that was once there."

While corporations have come to recognize that the gay population makes up a large consumer base, its exact size remains unclear, Combs said. Because many communities are less welcoming than Azalea Park, some people prefer to keep their sexual orientation private.

"The biggest, most elusive aspect of the gay and lesbian market is how big is it and where they live," Combs said. "Gay and lesbian consumers still face discrimination. Gay people have always had to sublimate part of their lives to someone, whether it is their employer or neighbor."

Thom Turner, president of the Azalea Park Neighborhood Association, insists that such negative attitudes have yet to surface in his community. "I have never run into any overt examples of homophobia," he said.

Conflicts in Azalea Park are much more likely to stem from disputes over yard maintenance than sexual orientation, he said. If there are residents who dislike gays and lesbians, "they don't make their views public."

Emmet Pierce: (619) 293-1372; emmet.pierce@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.