PORTLAND, Maine — When Maine voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage in early November, they gave several thousand gay couples in Maine the right to legally marry. They also, in the few hours it took to count and tally the votes, set in motion what is widely expected to be the biggest change Maine’s $230 million wedding industry has ever seen.
Same-sex marriage could generate $15.5 million in direct spending in Maine over the next three years, according to Lee Badgett, research director at the Williams Institute at UCLA and an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has studied same-sex marriage’s impacts on Maine.
“There will definitely be a boost,” Badgett said. “It’s clear same-sex couples are anxious to get married, and they will get married. We see that pretty clearly in all the other states where it’s happened.”
In Massachusetts, approximately 9,695 same-sex couples — roughly 44 percent of the total in the state — got married in the first three years after they were legally allowed to do so in 2004, she said.
Maine, by comparison, is home to an estimated 3,958 same-sex couples, according to 2010 Census data. If half those couples get married in the next three years and spend between $7,000 and $8,000 on their weddings, that will generate $15.5 million, Badgett said, adding that it’s a “very conservative estimate” considering the average wedding in Maine costs closer to $20,000.
However, Badgett’s estimate does not include spending related to non-resident same-sex couples having destination weddings in Maine — an impact that’s harder to nail down.
Badgett completed a more extensive study of gay marriage’s economic impact on Maine, including destination weddings, after the Legislature legalized it in 2009.
At the time, Badgett estimated 15,657 couples from elsewhere would travel to Maine to get married in the first three years after the law was passed, contributing nearly $50 million in direct spending to the state. However, a citizen’s referendum overturned the 2009 law later that year.
In the last three years, the situation has changed so much in the northeastern United States, her $50 million estimate is likely obsolete. “There’s more competition now” for same-sex couples looking to get married, she said. “Maine is the last New England state to enact this, which means a lot of pent up demand near Maine is already gone.”
Despite that, Badgett believes Maine’s reputation as a tourism destination will attract same-sex couples from elsewhere, perhaps just not in the numbers she previously predicted.
Melanie Brooks, editor of the Bangor-based magazine Real Maine Weddings, has already met same-sex couples shopping for gowns and scoping out wedding-related vendors at a few wedding trade shows she attended in Maine in the past month.
In 2011, there were an estimated 9,708 weddings in Maine, Brooks said, citing data from Wedding Report Inc., a company that tracks wedding industries across the country. Maine’s wedding industry is worth roughly $233 million, she said.
“I think you’re going to see that number shoot up astronomically,” she said. “I think you’re going to see a heck of a lot more weddings in Maine next year.”
Scott Cowger, co-owner of the Maple Hill Farm B&B in Hallowell, has already received several calls from same-sex couples looking to book his inn, which hosts about 20 weddings a summer, as a venue for their wedding in 2013.
“The boon for us is that we’ll have a much stronger wedding season without gaps in the schedule,” Cowger said.
He expects the pent-up demand from couples who have been waiting to get legally married will mean busier wedding seasons, at least for the short term.
“It will be a long-term boom economically, but in the short term there’s a backlog of people waiting to tie the knot,” he said.
Amber Small, a wedding planner in Bangor and co-owner of Sweetest Thing Weddings, said same-sex couples haven’t been banging down her doors. But she is pleased that Maine will now be a welcome location for same-sex couples from elsewhere who want a destination wedding, which is the crowd Small and her business partner cater to.
“This is a whole new demographic that can come now and get married,” she said.
At the moment, Maine’s Office of Tourism doesn’t have any plans to launch specific advertising campaigns targeting same-sex couples in other states, according to George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
“Much of our marketing efforts are planned well in advance and based on extensive research,” he said. “I don’t see any major changes to what we’re already doing because I believe what we’re already doing is hitting that market anyway. I think we’re well known as a destination wedding market and we’re getting some natural PR from the passage of [that law].”
Besides the direct spending on the gowns, caterers, flowers, cakes, etc., there are other, more intangible benefits Maine could realize from the legalization of same-sex marriage, Badgett said. One is that some businesses may find the law makes it easier for them to attract gay employees from out of state.
“To be able to marry, or keep your marriage recognized, is a big deal,” Badgett said. “It’s not something same-sex couples can take for granted at this point.”