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With gay marriage legal soon in Minnesota, will fewer same-sex couples come to Iowa to wed?

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DES MOINES, Iowa - During four years as the only Midwestern state to offer same-sex marriage, Iowa has seen thousands of couples travel to the heartland for wedding celebrations that pumped millions of dollars into the state economy.

But Iowa will get some competition in the cake and champagne industry when a Minnesota law legalizing gay marriage goes into effect on Aug. 1. Some Minnesota officials are already rolling out the red carpet for gay couples in other states.

"Weddings are a good business. That's an exciting part of it," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said. "We're really seeing this as an opportunity to not only do right by the community, but the economic (benefit as well)."

Coleman, a Democrat, added, "It could be a friendly competition between Minnesota and Iowa but we're confident St. Paul will do well."

Just how this shift will impact the Iowa wedding industry is hard to predict. Although the states are similar in many ways, Minneapolis-St. Paul is a metro area that nearly equals Iowa's total population, and the Twin Cities airport offers more frequent and often cheaper flights than Iowa airports. There also is a surge in enthusiasm following Minnesota's change in law.

Those factors might prove attractive to an out-of-state couple looking for a place to wed. Still, Iowa gay rights advocates said there is support in the state for gay couples and that travel to Iowa would continue.

"We're so pleased that Minnesota now has marriage. I think that in terms of revenue, in terms of the number of couples, that's not going to change that much," said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, the state's largest gay advocacy group. "I think people make choices based on lots of things. It seems like everybody has some connection to Iowa. I don't think it's going to affect us."

Red Wing also said that the goal is to have this opportunity in every state.

"In a couple of years if you live in Birmingham, Alabama, you're going to get married there," she said.

A 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage in the state, making it the third in the nation to take the step. In May, Minnesota became the 12th state, plus the District of Columbia, to approve same-sex unions. The others are: Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington.

States that have legalized same-sex marriage have seen an economic boost from those celebrations, including Iowa. According to a report from the Williams Institute, a LGBT-focused think-tank at the University of California, about $12 million was spent on gay weddings and related tourism in Iowa during the first year it was available. An estimated $4.6 million of that was generated by out-of-state couples.

Of the 1,302 same-sex weddings in Iowa in 2011 — the most recent year with data available — 955 were couples that reside outside the state, according to state data.

Some Minnesota destinations want in on the action. Tourism websites for Minneapolis and St. Paul both offer information on same-sex marriage and the St. Paul team recently travelled to Milwaukee's Pridefest to promote the city.

"We're Midwesterners, it's all friendly competition," said Adam Johnson, vice-president of marketing for Visit St Paul.

There is less of a visible public push coming from Iowa tourism groups. No gay marriage information is available on the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau site, though CEO Greg Edwards said they'd consider making such a change. Edwards said they had looked at putting marketing dollars into promoting gay marriage in the city, but their research suggested it wasn't going to be a big enough draw to devote significant resources.

Shawna Lode, manager of the Iowa Tourism Office, a state agency, said their focus was on moms with young children. And Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said the governor favours all tourism to Iowa, but would leave specifics on how to market the state to the tourism officials.

Still, there are resources available to those gay couples considering an Iowa wedding. Ken Fritz, who works for www.iowasgayweddingplanner.com, said the site offers information about vendors, as well as planning services. He said they're planning 26 weddings this year.

And wedding planner Beau Fodor, who has focused on same-sex unions since 2009, said he thinks Iowa will continue to get wedding tourism.

"I think the demographic that's interested in a heartland style wedding is going to come to Iowa," said Fodor, nothing that couples get more bang for their buck in Iowa. "We can hold our own and it's our price point. I can do a $30,000 wedding here that would be $50,000 in Minneapolis."

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