A year and a half after Anchorage rejected a gay rights ballot measure that deeply divided the city, the gay and lesbian community is being not only embraced but promoted from an unexpected quarter: the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
"I certainly know some will try to make this into a social commentary. The social debates are happening outside of what we're doing," said Andrew Halcro, the chamber president. "This is really focusing on the economy and the economic benefits of inclusivity."
The chamber didn't start the "commerce of diversity" initiative, but when Halcro, a former Republican state representative and gubernatorial candidate, was approached early this year, he saw the potential and things took off.
"They have credibility with the business community that, frankly, I don't have and my community doesn't," said Mary Elizabeth Rider, who organizes a virtual women's community that among other things publicizes events. Rider is part of the chamber-led diversity project. "It's enormous, it's powerful, and it cannot be underestimated. I'm thrilled."
The initiative, now called One Anchorage, One Economy, is about "non-discrimination at work, in rent, in home purchases, in all aspects of civic life," said lawyer Glenn Cravez, who helped start it. Business leaders are trying to build public acceptance of what the ballot measure aimed to require by law.
On Monday, Justin Nelson, the president of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, will be the featured speaker at the Anchorage chamber's "Make It Monday" forum. He plans to discuss how a growing number of businesses, including those in Anchorage, benefit financially from corporate policies of inclusion.
The talk will mark the first time Nelson has been invited to a mainstream chamber but Halcro said he's gotten no pushback, though the program was a surprise to the chamber's board of directors.
Some board members said they should have been informed earlier and Halcro said that will happen next time. Board chairman Bob Heinrich, a ConocoPhillips Alaska vice president, referred questions about the program to Halcro.
The Monday forum will launch the chamber's participation in a broader initiative -- called Live.Work.Play -- to make Anchorage the No. 1 city in America by 2025. The chamber's particular focus is improved schools and diversity.
Halcro and Nelson spoke Saturday at the Pride Conference at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Wells Fargo was the lead sponsor. Some conference sessions were focused around entrepreneurship and economic opportunity.
Wells Fargo, through its foundation, is investing $1 million over four years in the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber and supports its work through scholarships and business grants. The bank is one of the organization's founding members and has been involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for 25 years.
"We believe building relationships and providing specialized services to LGBT customers is not only the right thing to do -- it's smart business, especially when you take into account the evolving demographics and buying power of the LGBT community," David Kennedy, Wells Fargo's Alaska spokesman, said in an email.
The bank will be recognized for its efforts at Monday's forum.
The business-led effort is rooted in the April 2012 municipal vote over whether to require legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people. It failed badly, 57 percent to 43 percent.
"We are this welcoming place. We are this really cool city. How could this have failed? How could this not have passed?" said Vickie Green, who administers online health records for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and also manages a VA program to provide education about and celebrate the gay and lesbian community. She and her partner, Terri Huebler, are the couple who changed Sen. Lisa Murkowski's mind on gay marriage. Green is part of One Anchorage, One Economy.
Cravez, an Anchorage lawyer who now works mostly in conflict mediation, said he was disappointed, even angry, at the election result.
He knew people who were for equal rights yet voted against it. Somehow the measure's opponents convinced them it would be bad for business, said Cravez, who has two sons, one gay and one straight.
"I thought that was totally backwards," he said. Anchorage likes to see itself as a good place to do business: entrepreneurial, energetic, growing. "It struck me as totally counter-intuitive that you could have that and not have a city where everybody, including the GLBT community, was ... equal partners."
He began talking to leaders of Anchorage's gay community and to business leaders. Some were reluctant to step up -- until Halcro took it on, Cravez said.
Many businesses already have internal policies of non-discrimination. Some already provide benefits to same-sex partners. But they do so quietly. The business group wants to shift the conversation from us vs. them to one where openness and inclusion are celebrated.
The Anchorage Economic Development Corp. wants to make the city a lure for smart, young, creative professionals through its Live.Work.Play initiative. At its annual economic forecast luncheon in January, economist Richard Florida from the University of Toronto told the crowd that to make that happen, the city needs a talented and educated population, good technology and a tolerant and diverse culture.
While Anchorage Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall is involved in the chamber diversity effort, Mayor Dan Sullivan -- who opposed the 2012 ballot measure and vetoed an earlier equal rights ordinance -- was unaware of it. Asked about it Friday, Sullivan said, "That's the first I've heard of it."
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER