January 23, 2013 | by Mark Lee
Will D.C. Council overlook inauguration lesson?

A full-throated embrace of marriage equality and gay civil equity was among the more memorable and newsworthy portions of Monday’s presidential oath-taking moment. Brightest Young Gays, a component of local web magazine and special event production agency Brightest Young Things, would later tweet the inevitable irreverent suggested drag persona of “Selma Anne Stonewall” in celebration of the historical references in the president’s speech.

Grousing by D.C. Council members, however, at the lack of a similar mention of either District voting rights or statehood was reported. Their disappointment became the buzz while ensconced in a well-appointed $350,000 temporary enclosed pavilion constructed in front of their Wilson Building offices on the inaugural parade route.

D.C. Council members, distracted by a flurry of civic excitement and discontent at voting rights advocacy limited to motorcade limousine license plates and their own obtuse parade pavilion signage, may again overlook an important lesson of the inaugural festivities.

Last spring, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray proposed revising the maximum allowable alcohol service hours at the District’s bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels by a modest one-hour extension throughout the year. City administrators estimated that the plan would raise several millions of dollars in additional annual tax revenues and boost the city’s image as a world-class locale, offering budget balancing benefits absent additional service cuts or even-higher taxes.

Hospitality and tourism organizations, along with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, urged Council approval of the service extension option. D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier testified that extended hours throughout the 2009 inauguration resulted in no troublesome incidents. Lanier expressed confidence that current police disbursement was fully adequate to handle the proposed regulatory update.

Council member David Catania smartly suggested approving the everyday one-hour extension “on a temporary basis” to “see what the ramifications are.” If the concerns of opponents “come to fruition, we could revisit” the policy, he said.

The Council instead voted, with only Council member Jim Graham in opposition, a more limited experiment to test-drive the modernized plan. The modified compromise bill limited the extension to 19 dates during the fiscal year beginning last October.

This made possible venue service until 4 a.m. the night before all 11 federal and D.C. holidays as well as Friday through Saturday preceding Memorial Day and Labor Day and when New Year’s Eve and July 4th fall on a Monday. In addition, a weeklong special service extension every four years during the inauguration period was continued.

Although visitor attendance at this year’s inauguration was greatly reduced, local residents and area patrons enjoyed an eight-day period of extended service at more than 150 establishments – again without incident. Washington Post nightlife reporter Fritz Hahn described the local scene as “more New Year’s, less new era” than last time, with orderly operation around town. Some venues, in fact, shut down early on several nights. It is, after all, Washington.

With several regular holiday service extensions now under the city’s belt and a growing record of trouble-free results, city officials should initiate approval of a year-round extension of operating hours as the next fiscal year approaches.

An additional rationale for expanding the policy is the now-proven real-world benefit in mitigating the pressures resulting from venues simultaneously “dumping” large numbers of patrons onto city streets – causing congestion, noise, and unnecessary burdens. As hospitality operators and advocates have long maintained, and as demonstrated by similar policies in other states and urban areas, allowing customers to depart in a manner similar to their sequential arrival is a savvy solution.

It is the regulatory measure most desired by D.C.’s premier nightlife businesses, particularly in the city’s numerous and expanding entertainment districts. They know first-hand that extended hours offer relief to surrounding residents and allow improved egress management.

Numerous local operators, including the city’s hottest nightspots, report that they often close prior to the later allowed time as guests have already gradually departed in a naturally occurring and decorous fashion. Many venues will not utilize the option, particularly on weeknights, further reducing concurrent outflow.

As Council members search the seat cushions for loose change to pay the bills, it’s time to extend hospitality hours year-round.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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