CHICAGO - Never mind that Chicago hosted the 2006 International Gay Games. Or that it has the country's first government-recognized gay neighborhood. Or that up to 400,000 people attend the city's Gay Pride Parade each year.
When most people think of gay meccas, Chicago - home of the Blues Brothers, legendary playground of Al Capone - isn't the first city that comes to mind. While New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles long ago established themselves as America's gay destinations, Chicago's reach has seldom extended beyond the Midwest.
But city officials, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, and members of the gay community are hoping a new community center - the largest in the region - establishes Chicago as a national destination for gays, with resources geared toward both residents and tourists.
The Center on Halsted, a $20 million facility on Chicago's North Side that officially opened this month, is one of the country's only gay community centers built from the ground up by a partnership of government, private and business funding.
Designed by the architectural firm Gensler, the 65,000-square-foot, eco-friendly facility has a computer lab, office space for community organizations, a black-box theater, a gym named after tennis star Billie Jean King and a rooftop garden named for Mayor Daley.
Whole Foods Market is the center's retail anchor, the first retailer of its size to anchor a gay community center in the United States, organizers said.
"It's really an amazing dream come true,'' said Tracy Baim, editor and publisher of Windy City Times, one of the city's oldest gay publications, who said the center will help promote gay tourism.
"Chicago is not a typical vacation spot for (gay) people beyond the Midwest,'' Baim said, but those who have visited "couldn't believe how beautiful our city is.''
There are 160 gay community centers around the country - from Amarillo, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska - including about 10 new facilities each year, said Terry Stone, executive director of the National Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Centers.
Leaders around the country had considered Chicago's lack of a central organization a void that kept the city from participating in nationwide programs, such as a get-out-the-vote campaign, said Richard Burns, executive director of New York City's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.
Burns noted that community centers are the largest gay organizations in cities around the country, from New York to Los Angeles.
"9 a.m. to 11 p.m., it's the queer grand central station of a community,'' he said. "You're a place where people come to celebrate queer culture. I'm so excited Chicago is going to have such a major player.''
Baim and others say the gay community's central meeting space has moved from place to place over the last 20 years because organizers couldn't afford their own building.
Chicago's first openly gay alderman, Tom Tunney, said the AIDS epidemic had a lot to do with the financial instability of past efforts at centers here.
AIDS turned in action
"The funding priorities in the '80s were all about AIDS funding,'' Tunney said. "This would've happened years ago if the AIDS epidemic did not hit so hard in Chicago and this nation.''
In other cities, gay communities translated the outrage over AIDS into successful fund-raising efforts for centers. The New York Gay Center was established in 1983, just as HIV/AIDS were entering the public consciousness.
In Chicago, community organizing about health issues led to the growth of the Howard Brown Health Center, a full-service clinic for the GLBT community whose initial focus was sexually transmitted diseases. Baim said successful fund raising for the clinic's new home in the '90s convinced donors that capital campaigns in the gay community could work.
So when organizers began serious talk about the Center on Halsted several years ago, Mayor Daley offered financing on a former Chicago Park District storage facility centrally located near the heart of the city's official gay neighborhood.
Gay community centers traditionally have relied upon money from individuals, foundations and corporations, said Stone. As gay community centers grow and become more established, they attract money from a wider base of support, such as government, he said.
Daley: Center a 'labor of love'
At the Center on Halsted's ribbon-cutting ceremony, Daley called the new facility "an inspiration.''
"To me, it is a labor of love,'' Daley said. "This is a center that just is not concrete and steel but names behind it who have worked in the community for so long who have struggled for so long.''
Past Executive Director Robbin Burr called the center "a safe space and a catalyst'' for all members of the gay community.
"This facility is indeed remarkable,'' she said. "But what is really most remarkable … are the programs that will flourish and grow inside the walls as we now have this amazing, state-of-the-art place to change the lives of people.''
Organizers say the center reflects the city's diversity, drawing people from across the area.
Executive Director Modesto Tico Valle said the center will draw people from across the country, too.
"The center is becoming a tourism attraction,'' he said. "We do want people to come visit Chicago, come visit the center. There's definitely a lot to do here.''
"There's wonderful opportunities here,'' he said. "We've just got to get the word out.''