by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he idea -- a "gay district" like the Castro in San Francisco -- was made all the more provocative by the fact it was planned for staid, family-friendly Spokane. Journalists relished the juxtaposition. Conservative religious leaders condemned it, saying such a district would attract crime, drugs and sex.

Proponents like Bonnie Aspen, on the other hand, said the creation of a gay-friendly neighborhood would show that the city was indeed tolerant and progressive -- just the type of place desired by the emerging "creative class." It was late 2004 and everything seemed possible. The sweeping Kendall Yards project would soon be announced, and support for a "university district" was building.

In January 2005, Aspen predicted the gay district would take shape in the next year or two. "It was a very exciting time," she recalls. "Eyes popped open and people stopped being Eeyores and started being Tiggers."

So, where's our neighborhood of gay-oriented businesses?

"The best way to say it is ... I think we were far beyond the reality in Spokane," says Aspen, acknowledging that ambition got ahead of ability and interest. "That happens at all levels of city government and organizations. Things move slowly."

The Inland Northwest Business Alliance (INBA), an association of gay-friendly businesses, had identified three possible places for the district -- a stretch of East Sprague, Broadway in West Central and Perry Street on the South Hill -- but in the end, gay business owners weren't necessarily committed to picking up stakes and moving, Aspen says.

Nor was there enough money to fund a feasibility study, which would have helped to convince business owners that they'd reap real benefits by being part of a larger district, says Marvin Reguindin, INBA president. "There was a bit of a fizzle-out," he says.

"A gay district requires a lot of players with a lot of money," adds Dean Lynch, Spokane's first openly gay politician and a former City Council member. "You're talking about creating store fronts, stores and services that would be geared specifically to the gay community and, in order to do that, you have to have the business people willing to make the financial investment to make it happen."

In other words, it was a bit of a long shot from the start, but then something else emerged that would steal some of their momentum: Jim West. In May 2005 -- only a few months after the district idea grabbed headlines -- the Spokesman-Review outed West, raised questions about his association with young men and alleged he abused his mayoral powers.

Gay leaders quickly turned to their attention to the West affair, making sure that the issue of sexual orientation stayed separate from his political downfall.

"I don't think it derailed us, but it certainly moved momentum and attention away from what we were doing," Aspen says.

The West saga also took the attention of Frontline producers, who had come to Spokane to make a documentary about the city's gay community against the backdrop of the West case -- "as a window into the larger story of being gay in America," says producer Rachel Dretzin. In the editing process, however, the footage examining gay life and efforts to create a district were cut out as the documentary re-focused on West.

"We were just really struggling to make the two work together and they seemed like two different stories," Dretzin says. "It was disappointing to us, frankly. We had become very fond of the material we shot with the broader gay community."

Even though a gay neighborhood hasn't emerged, the drive to create a district wasn't a total loss, say organizers. It generated a lot of conversation and raised awareness about Spokane's gay community. And by increasing the community's visibility, more gay and lesbian people felt safe and comfortable -- achieving one of the main goals of a specialized district.

"Spokane didn't become a gay mecca, but it has become very attractive, a beacon of hope for people in the outlying areas," Aspen says. "And if they can take one small step to becoming more visible themselves, we are helping to create fewer Jim Wests" -- people too fearful to acknowledge their sexuality.

And now a new goal is emerging. Aspen and others hope to make the city's pride events an attractive destination for gay families all across the country. She says that other celebrations in cities like San Francisco, New York and even Seattle tend to be more adult-oriented. Spokane, then, could fill a need.

"When you're anywhere in the country and Spokane comes up, the first thing that comes up is how Spokane is a family-friendly place," Aspen says. "Our gay community is no different. ... We have families, too."

Spokane Pride Parade starts at noon on Saturday and runs along Main and Riverside Avenues between Stevens and Lincoln Streets. OutSpokane Rainbow Festival, noon to 5:30 pm, includes entertainment and a family play area in Riverfront Park.

Spokane Justice for Tyre Nichols @ North Bank Park

Sat., Feb. 4, 3:30-5:15 p.m.
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