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New executive director Eric Heinritz is PrideFest’s first paid employee. He started the job in January. — Photo: MILWAUKEE PRIDEFEST

PrideFest expands under new director and new structure

Eric Heinritz has so much on his plate that you might need a nap after hearing about it.

But he’s not complaining. His blue eyes are bright with enthusiasm as he describes his new position and the possibilities that come with it.

In January, Heinritz was named executive director of Milwaukee Pride Inc., a newly formed LGBT organization with bold ambitions. First and foremost, the just-minted 501(c)(3) is putting on PrideFest Milwaukee. Heinritz had fewer than six months to coordinate the final preparations for “the world’s largest LGBT festival with permanent grounds.” It’s an event that draws upwards of 30,000 celebrants to Milwaukee’s Summerfest grounds every June.

In addition to the long hours and mind-boggling array of tasks involved in that enterprise, Heinritz, 38, also is a single father of 2-year-old twin girls — Avery and Zooey.

“With the girls and PrideFest, that’s been my whole life for the past two years,” he says with an air.

Fortunately, both Heinritz and PrideFest are hardly starting from scratch. He served on the board last year, and many of the volunteers previously associated with the massive undertaking remain on board — along with some new ones. The latter include a group from Fox Valley Pride, and Tony Snell, who’s been involved with security at South Carolina Gay Pride, dating back to the 1990s.

Volunteers like these are essential to PrideFest, which for more than 25 years depended entirely on people generously donating their time and expertise to the event.

New era

As PrideFest’s first paid employee, then, Heinritz represents the dawn of a new era.

Heinritz has an ideal background for the position, beginning with a degree in business and a background in human resource consulting. But his most significant experience is the work he’s done for Summerfest.

For 14 seasons, Heinritz was the staff accountant for Milwaukee’s signature event. He also directed Summerfest’s food and beverage operations, managing the same area of the grounds that PrideFest occupies each year.

He’s essentially served as the landlord for PrideFest, he says.

Among his first items of business was conducting a thorough review of expenses and income — what he calls a “forensic audit.” That resulted in making “a couple of tweaks” to the budget, he says. He also began working with the board early this year to expand sponsorship involvement.

Careful financial planning is essential for an outdoor event whose success or failure is impacted by the uncontrollable factor of Milwaukee’s lakefront weather. As a hedge against that, this year the event has been moved back to June 10 to 12, about a week later than usual. That gives Lake Michigan an extra week to warm up before the gates open. “When you look at early June, a week makes all the difference,” Heinritz says.

When the weather is cool and wet, “you can have strong attendance numbers but people don’t stick around as long.” But, he adds quickly, headliners are also crucial to success: “Our strongest protection is a stellar line-up,” he stresses.

With the help of PrideFest’s longtime partner the Pabst Theater Group, this year’s stars sparkle. The lineup includes comedian Sarah Silverman, Blondie, GGOOLLDD, Big Freedia, Deborah Cox, Crystal Waters and Gabriel Sanchez’s Prince tribute.

Better visibility

PrideFest’s 2016 layout comes close to mirroring last year’s, Heinritz says.

The Health and Wellness area will remain on the south grounds, where familiar organizations such as Diverse & Resilient, AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and BESTD (which will provide free HIV screenings) will staff booths. A total of 40 organizations are involved this year.

But the Health and Wellness area will gain greater visibility this year. For the first time, a “community information booth” will greet PrideFest visitors “at the main gate — front and center,” Heinritz says. Volunteers there will direct people to the south grounds, ensuring the area and its services aren’t overlooked.

In addition, “We’ve redesigned and expanded (the community area) to make sure everyone is there in visible spots,” Heinritz says.

In the community area, attendees will find the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, the Loft Lounge, the Stonewall Tent and the Wom!nz Spot.

Expect to see new vendors at the marketplace this year, he added.

As in previous years, there will be a VIP area, where patrons can enjoy an excellent view of the Miller Stage, along with food, drink and other amenities. VIP tickets can be purchased online or at the gate. The cost is $100 for one day, $225 for all three days of the festival.

This year the dance pavilion will offer a comparable VIP area.

Moving forward

After the glitter, paper cups, confetti and other debris of PrideFest 2016 are hauled away, Heinritz will turn his attention to building Milwaukee Pride Inc. into a full-fledged organization that will stage fundraising events year round to benefit various community groups. He wants his group to fill gaps in services for Milwaukee’s LGBT community. “What I want to do is find out where those gaps are, what needs are not currently being met by existing organizations,” he says. “What we don’t want to do is take on what other organizations are doing.

“We would like to be a portal where people could come and use us as a resource — where we could leverage our existing partnerships and work together to solve issues.”

PrideFest already does cross promotions with Pabst Theater Group. For instance, the Avett Brothers are performing on a different part of the Summerfest grounds on opening night, and anyone who attends that concert will receive a ticket for PrideFest. On Saturday night, people who attend RuPaul’s Drag Race: Battle of the Seasons at the Pabst Theater will receive both a ticket for PrideFest and a shuttle ride to the Summerfest grounds.

PrideFest will also have a float in this year’s Milwaukee Pride Parade, and shuttles will take people back and forth between the parade and the festival.

These examples are just the beginning, Heinritz says, of what he hopes will become a win-win relationship between the new organization and existing community groups.

But first, he and his volunteers must mount another successful PrideFest.

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