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Will the Utah Pride Center weather this storm?

News analysis by QSaltLake editor and publisher Michael Aaron

On the press day of our September issue, QSaltLake Magazine learned that over a third of the staff of the Utah Pride Center were laid off. We reached out to Center leaders for a statement that would give the community hope that the Center wasn’t about to fall to its knees.

The statement came well after we were supposed to get our last pages to the press, but we were able to get a half-page story in just before the final signature of the publication had to be plated.

To those not in the publishing business, that means we snuck it under the wire. Barely.

Reading the statement, however, was disappointing, at least. It was read by this writer as devastating.

It was obvious that the statement was never looked over by anyone with a public relations, legal, or nonprofit leadership background. The statement left little hope for the community that Pride would survive, much less thrive. As a Pride sponsor, it left me wondering if we were supporting a lost cause; if we would be dragged down with the sinking ship. I can imagine other sponsors wondered the same.

It was obvious that leaders of the Center were not prepared beforehand to look outward to the community in its time of crisis. Leadership failed.

“We at the Pride Center acknowledge the disappointment and outrage of the community regarding the instability of our organization. We know how important the Center is to you, and we solemnly apologize for letting you down,” the statement began.

Wow.

They went on to talk about their sadness of having to let people go because of the “massive financial turmoil that the Center is currently facing.”

They called the problems of their financial situation “monumental.”

Those are the words you read in the September issue of QSaltLake Magazine. Those are the words other news outlets, having read our story, quoted us as reporting. Those are the words that radio personalities used to declare, “The Utah Pride Center is closing.”

Updates

The space I am using to write this news analysis piece was supposed to be full of both background and a few updates from Center leaders. Any and all information I was able to collect about what went on, what the current financial status truly is, and how the Center got to this point were from people who would not go on the record.

And it is a lot of hearsay because no one currently at the helm would take the time to talk to us.

After reaching out dozens of times with no response, I finally got a note that I should expect something Sept. 20 — a day after our press day for October. I was able to get the press to move our time slot 24 hours.

But then, radio silence happened all week, and not until my angst made it to my Facebook page did I receive a reply from co-CEO Tanya Hawkins.

“Right now, I do not have an update for you.”

I was also able to find the cellphone number of Utah Pride Center Board Chair Jess Couser. I received a text statement that said, basically, we gotta give the leaders time … wholeheartedly committed … our mission, etc. A non-statement statement.

“In short, we are working every day, and we will provide more information as soon as we have it,” Couser summarized. “We acknowledge that this journey will necessitate transparency and difficult decisions.”

One of my questions to Couser was when we would see the Center’s 2020–21 and 2021–22 IRS filings, as the 2022–23 financial year ends Sept. 30.

“As soon as those are filed, those will be available.”

Unanswered questions

Many questions were raised in social media posts by those who were let go in August. Questions like why they were not given even a week’s severance while, at the same time, they were actively searching for a new executive director with a salary range of $75,000 to $150,000.

Like, why wasn’t the Board actively working to help raise funds to keep the Center alive if they knew of the “monumental” financial straits the organization was in?

Three of the ten board members are no longer part of Utah Pride Center since the layoffs, according to website updates made that day. Apparently exiting included former board chair Gloria Casteneda. Mike Iwasaki is no longer listed as Vice Chair. Couser was secretary of the board until being labeled as chair right around the time of the layoffs.

Another question — how poorly did the 2023 Utah Pride Festival do financially? Did the extra spending on security (five-fold from previous years) and “bigger names” that graced the stages of the Festival go through the board approval processes put in place by previous Center board leaders?

And then, there are the questions raised by community members as the Center’s social media was barraged by naysayers.

The biggest: has the Utah Pride Center lost its focus on the community?

Supporters

So, here I am — head of a magazine that has been an ardent supporter of the Utah Pride Center, which has gladly given over a half million dollars’ worth of sponsored advertising over the years — sounding like so many in our community who are so quick to pounce on the Center as it smells blood.

This, in and of itself, is part of the problem the Center has had over the years to maintain its footing. What sponsors want to be tied to an organization that has such vitriol thrown at it? I can think of seven former sponsors who left because of the angst directed at the Center — not of those who are against our community, but of the community itself.

So, yes, you will read in these words my frustration that the Center’s leaders didn’t feel it important enough to reach out to our community through our pages to give us a glimmer of hope as we wait for its leaders to re-emerge after sequestering themselves.

A mentor I reached out to for help on how to address this article summarized it well.

“By being silent during such a grave crisis, [Utah Pride Center leaders] are leaving their fate in the hands of public opinion,” they said. “If they think they can just ride it out, they will fail.”

The scale and volume of the Center leaders’ response will determine the organization’s survival, especially in protecting one of the most important assets they still have and can leverage: the goodwill of a community that believes in the mission of the Center.

QSaltLake is the right outlet for the Center to acknowledge the emotional landscape,” he continued. “Even something as simple as ‘we see you, we hear you, and we are here to make the changes with you.’“

Current leaders, while nice people, were not up to the task for the challenge of leadership in this trying time. They’ve lacked transparency through the past years on their financial status. The board does not reflect the community itself.

Will our Center and our Pride survive and thrive?

Through all of this, I sit here as someone who believes in the concept and the necessity of an LGBTQ community center. I wait, holding my breath, with the hope that Salt Lake City can be big enough, strong enough, and courageous enough to maintain our Center, through thick and through thin.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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