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Friday, August 22, 2014 - 12:27pm

When Same-Sex Couples In Savannah Leave The City To Get Married, They Take Their Wallets With Them

Updated: 3 months ago.

Savannah’s lush squares and beautiful coastline make it a popular destination for weddings. This weekend, vendors will meet there for the first-ever LGBT Wedding Expo.

Some couples will take part in a mass commitment ceremony to celebrate their love. Same-sex weddings aren’t legally recognized in Georgia – but that could change, if a lawsuit against the state’s gay marriage ban is successful.

And that could mean a new market for wedding vendors.

Recently married Keri Vitagliano and Jessie Lee playfully scold Macy, one of their two high-spirited boxer terriers as she jumps up to play with her mothers.

The couple share a quaint home with family pictures lining the wall.

In July 2013 Keri and Jessie, an Air Force veteran, decided to marry after nearly two decades of being together.

After the VA began to offer benefits to same sex couples they knew it was time. Jessie opens a photo album.

“The fourth of July had just passed and it still had red, white and blue on it,” said Keri pointing to the Gazebo they were wed beneath.

The album pictures Jessie in her Air Force uniform, Keri in her fedora style hat with trendy glasses, and their dog Roxie who served as the flower girl. A beautiful scene, but it didn’t happen in Georgia.

Although the couple wanted to marry in Savannah, they traveled back to Keri’s home state of New Hampshire, and they brought their wallets with them. By the time they returned home, the happy couple and their guests had over a weeks worth of food, hotel and entertainment expenditures.

That’s a lot of spending that could be happening in Georgia says Christy Mallory, a researcher at the Williams Institute a think tank in California.

“We expect to see most of the gain in the service and hospitality industry.”

While statistics for Georgia are not yet available, researchers estimate that in Virginia, a state similar in size to Georgia, gay marriage would create 46 to $60 million in additional spending.

“I would say that to the extent a certain city is a draw for opposite sex couples it would likely be the same for same sex couples,” said Mallory. “Particularly if it’s known to be a more of a liberal city in more of a conservative area.”

If a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s same-sex marriage ban succeeds, Savannah would be an obvious choice for gay couples, says Donna Von Bruening. She’s been photographing weddings in Savannah for 15 years.

“It is gay friendly and it is a pretty progressive place when it comes to social aspects of life.”

Still, Von Bruening doesn’t expect things to change right away, even if same sex marriage is legalized in Georgia.

“There would have to be some advertising around it, that it is a location.”

Wedding vendors who oppose same-sex marriage might turn away some business.

Elizabeth Osterberger is the owner of Elope To Savannah. She says one same-sex couple she worked with described going to 7 different bakers and at least as many photographers before finding people willing to serve them.

“I personally do know some vendors who would not be very open to gay marriage,” said Osterberger.

But not all couples share this experience. Bob Dunn and Todd Mauldin sit across from each other at their dining room table in their Savannah Parkside home. Each of them holds a glass of scotch in one hand and has a customized wedding band on their right finger.

After moving from Philadelphia to Savannah, Bob and Todd developed a social network and got involved in community service. So when they decided to plan a wedding, they wanted to have it here in Georgia.

One hundred fifty guests attended the celebration, with several traveling from out of town and renting hotel rooms.

“They spent their money in the bars and the restaurants, we rented out an entire restaurant for a Sunday afternoon,” said Todd. “We used a local bakery, we used a local florist, we used a local DJ, we bought our tuxes here. We had a wedding.”

Bob and Todd consider Savannah the place of their “real” wedding but it isn’t where they got married.Their legally recognized wedding was in Massachusetts in March 2011.

But what about same-sex couples in Georgia who are trying to tie the knot?

“If people are waiting, they might not want to wait forever and they’re going to travel to a state where it’s legal to get married,” says Mallory.

And it isn’t just same sex couples that could benefit from same sex marriage. A boost to the economy would lead to a boost in job creation.

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