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Mark Arrington, right, and Bobby Hill are co-owners of BobbyMark‚??s Designs, an event-planning and floral design company in Asheville. The two have planned many events at Homewood in Montford, behind them, and other local venues, including same-sex marriage celebrations. / John Coutlakis , John Coutlakis/Asheville citizen-times

The hot-button issue of same-sex marriage may draw fiery debate from both sides, but there's no arguing that gay weddings have the potential to mean big business - especially in Asheville, North Carolina.

As North Carolina awaits the next steps in judicial rulings that could make same-sex marriage legal in the state, event planners and business owners who provide services for wedding ceremonies and celebrations are watching with interest.

The fact that Asheville already is a major destination for weddings, combined with its reputation as a gay-friendly city, suggests that legalization of marriage for an entire new population of North Carolina couples could lead to a boom in nuptials here.

Local vendors are already seeing an uptick in celebrations by same-sex couples who've gotten legally married in Washington, D.C., or other states but want a ceremony and reception in the presence of family and friends in their home state.

"It's already happening to some degree, but certainly not to the degree it will be when (same-sex) marriage is legal in North Carolina," said Aaron Sarver, communications director for the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, which has been at the forefront of the effort to overturn the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that was passed in 2012.

"Everybody loves Asheville, right?" Sarver said. "So just like we see with straight couples, we'll see a lot of destination weddings in Asheville, especially because we're so LGBT-friendly."

A sampling of local business owners, from florists to wedding cake bakers to wedding photographers, shows that most have already worked with same-sex couples to create celebrations of their unions. All said they welcome the opportunities legalization would bring, commercial and otherwise.

"We feel about same-sex marriage as we feel about any commitment - it is a natural progression in a relationship - and we have done several such celebrations," said Celine Lurey, who with her husband, Michael, owns catering company and event venue Celine and Company.

"We've done second weddings, older-people weddings, widowed-people weddings - we make it clear in all of our verbiage that everyone is welcome, and we're not going to say, 'If you're gay, come here,'" Lurey said. "We hope that would be a plus, to not be singled out, and we don't want to coin same-sex couples as being 'different.'"

Modern-day marketing

Stephanie Brown, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it's too soon to know how last week's ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will ultimately impact marriage in North Carolina, and therefore its wedding industry.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, which includes North Carolina within its jurisdiction, ruled July 28 that Virginia's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, a decision that effectively paves the way for courts in North Carolina to do the same.

"While long-term opportunities remain a bit unclear with the ruling as fresh as it is, the weddings market certainly makes an important financial impact on the tourism industry here in Buncombe County," Brown said.

The ACVB doesn't track wedding-venue bookings or vendor contracts, but it offers a range of destination-wedding resources, including facilitating and booking group hotel rates for couples and their guests.

In 2013, more than $731,000 in estimated host-hotel revenue was serviced through the ACVB team, breaking down to 74 weddings, Brown said.

"That's just a small slice of the total wedding business that this community sees," she said, noting that there's no way to track business booked directly through host hotels. "However, it offers insight into the market potential."

Bobby Hill and Mark Arrington, life partners for almost 30 years who together own the event-planning and floral design company BobbyMark's Designs in Asheville, said the prospect of a new population of brides and grooms is exciting.

But like other event planners in the area who already have most dates blocked out on their calendars, Hill and Arrington said they don't have plans to begin an ad campaign to capture the gay-marriage market if it comes to pass.

"We've always been poised and ready because we're open to all markets - business is business," Arrington said. "Do we advertise specifically to the gay market? It's something we might consider this year, but we want to do weddings for everybody. We don't turn down anyone, unless it's someone who's outspoken against us."

BobbyMark's Designs has already coordinated four same-sex ceremonies without any direct marketing. Hill said if same-sex marriage becomes a reality, they may ramp up the outreach.

"I think we'll be using more keywords like 'commitment ceremony' and 'gay weddings' on our website, and on a Google search - that's huge, along with links," Hill said.

No rules apply

Another sign of the times is what modern weddings look like. There still are traditional fêtes that follow a generations-old template. But increasingly, couples are tossing the playbook and creating their own distinct ceremonies and celebrations.

That means fewer "rules" for same-sex couples to navigate - like dress codes and the wedding party attendants' lineup -and more opportunities for local vendors to fill their needs in creative ways.

"For us, it's no different planning a gay wedding than a regular wedding," said Becca Knuth, who with business partner Melissa Porter has owned Asheville Event Co. for seven years and has planned several same-sex celebrations.

"Traditional weddings have gone out the window - everybody does things differently, so anything goes, and that's what makes a wedding special and unique in this day and age," Knuth said. "Everybody's bringing something different to the table, whether it's same-sex marriage or having three best men or a best woman or a best dog - and we do have those."

Hill said with legalization will come "a new growth pattern in the industry; all the traditions have been thrown out the window even with regular weddings, and I think it's going to be refreshing and new - even though it's going to be challenging for some people in the industry."

Wedding dreams

Dericka and Keisha Hollifield, who live in Marion, were legally married in Washington, D.C., on July 26 and are planning a celebration with "the whole shebang" on Sept. 6 in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Dericka Hollifield, 25, a nursing student, who is doing much of the planning for the pink-and-charcoal-gray-themed event in DYI mode, and Keisha, 34, who works in her family's local business, said they see many opportunities for new businesses to fill the needs of same-sex couples planning a wedding.

For example, "The most difficult thing has been finding the cake topper - all the brides are super feminine, and even in Asheville there aren't really two brides or two grooms," Dericka said. "And everything (monogrammed) is Mr. and Mrs., but there aren't Mrs. and Mrs. or Mr. and Mr."

Behind the challenges - and joys - of planning a wedding celebration is the lingering trepidation that comes with being "illegal" in North Carolina, Dericka said.

The couple, who took part in the Campaign for Southern Equality's ongoing We Do campaign by applying for and being denied a marriage license in McDowell County before being married in Washington a few days later, have felt the sting of legal status and public perception.

"There definitely was a huge fear ‚?¶ I've heard of people who applied for a (wedding venue) and were turned down, and that was always in the back of my mind," Dericka said. "And since the state doesn't recognize it, a lot of people treat it like we're getting 'pretend-married,' and there was the extra expense of going to another state to get married."

Dericka said she lives for the day when North Carolina and all other states "give everyone the human right to be married, and I'm excited for my future children and all the generations yet to be born who will be far removed from (today's) mindset."

For now, she is focused on her wedding celebration next month, and particularly the part of the ceremony involving "the promises you make to each other in front of the people who are going to hold you accountable."

"I've dreamed of this (wedding) since I was a little girl," Dericka said, "and everybody should have the opportunity to have their dream come true."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Change in gay-marriage law could benefit businesses

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