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Broward tourism chief to Naugle: 'Stop the rhetoric'

By DOUGLAS HANKS III, dhanks@miamiherald.com

627082407naugle_embedded_prod_affilFort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle could undo decades of tourism marketing campaigns if he continues linking gay vacationers with Broward County's AIDS woes, tourism officials warned Thursday.

Broward already faces an ''erosion'' of conference business with at least one gay group suspending plans for a Fort Lauderdale gathering and some minority organizations questioning whether the county is a tolerant venue for meetings, Broward tourism director Nicki Grossman told Naugle.

''Mr. Mayor, we're just asking you to please stop the rhetoric,'' said Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

It was her first confrontation with the mayor since controversy erupted four weeks ago over Naugle questioning the county's enthusiasm for gay tourists amid high rates of AIDS. International media attention followed, with the New York Times, CNN and -- on Wednesday night -- Fox's Bill O'Reilly interviewing Naugle.

He sits on the county's Tourist Development Council, which held its regular monthly meeting Thursday morning. Chairman Richard Gray, a gay hotelier who runs a guesthouse catering to gay vacationers, sat between Naugle and Grossman.

The meeting unfolded without incident until the final round of marketing items, when Naugle questioned why the Fort Lauderdale guide to gay travel includes a ''bathhouse'' that the mayor said accommodates sexual encounters.

''I never said we should not promote gay tourism in Fort Lauderdale,'' Naugle said. ``But we should do it tastefully and with the public health in mind.''

His remarks set off a tense back-and-forth with Grossman and other staffers and business executives who were also critical of Naugle.

Virginia Sheridan, the bureau's New York public relations executive, warned that Naugle was frustrating efforts to brand Fort Lauderdale as a sophisticated vacation spot. That image, she said, came after millions of dollars in marketing efforts aimed at retiring Fort Lauderdale's popularity as a cheap place for college spring break.

''We've spent 20 years building up a reputation for the destination as being modern, diverse and inclusive,'' said Sheridan, president of M. Silver Associates. ``We're now in a position of having to defend that.''

A San Francisco gay newspaper called for a boycott of Fort Lauderdale, ranked the sixth most popular vacation spot among gay travelers. Gay tourists account for about 11 percent of the county's $8.5 billion tourism industry, according to bureau estimates.

Occupancy has been dropping in Broward County hotels this year, and only Super Bowl XLI has kept tourist tax receipts ahead of 2006 results, bureau executives said. The slump comes amid rising room rates as an influx of luxury hotels seeks the kind of affluent tourist Fort Lauderdale has had difficulty attracting in large numbers.

Though bureau executives initially resisted engaging Naugle in a public debate, they said his comments now threaten the tourism industry.

Grossman, a former county commissioner, called Naugle's past comments ''hurtful and mean-spirited'' and accused him of promoting a Fort Lauderdale where visitors would see gay sex ''in the trees'' and ``in the supermarkets.''

She said a parent called the bureau this week to ask if her daughter would see men having sex on Fort Lauderdale beach if she participated in a fall soccer tournament there. Grossman later said the bureau plans to boost gay-oriented advertising to counter Naugle's comments, which she said will cause that niche of the travel industry to ``suffer terribly.''

But Naugle said he was justified in his concern over Broward's AIDS problems. Federal statistics show the Greater Miami metropolitan area, which includes Fort Lauderdale, is second only to New York in the number of AIDS infections among men caused by gay sex and drug use.

Naugle accused Grossman and the tourism industry of caring more about vacationers' dollars than a public health crisis.

''It's not always about the money. If we can save lives, I think that's important,'' he said. ``If we're going to lose a little business because we're not promoting the bathhouses, so be it.''

The Club, a Fort Lauderdale spa and health club limited to men, is listed in the 2007 ''Rainbow Travel'' guide the bureau offers gay travelers.

Its website advertises rentals of dressing rooms where guests can lie down and offers tips on safe sex. The site also includes photos of workout equipment and said customers may use a pool and sun deck.

A manager there was not available for comment Thursday evening.

Grossman said The Club is licensed to do business in Fort Lauderdale.

Grossman also said next year's gay-travel guide will not include The Club because designers removed the section for gyms about five months ago.

Photo by CANDACE WEST / Miami Herald Staff


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