It’s now time for the D.C. Council to review the results of the decision a year ago to extend operating hours and alcohol service at hospitality establishments by one hour, limited to specific holiday dates to mollify the objections of some. The partial extension was undertaken with the understanding that the policy would be evaluated for possible expansion after an initial trial.
The results of that self-identified “experiment” are now known and discussion of the District’s budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 has begun. Based on the benefits, the Council should move forward to approve a year-round expansion of the law.
A vocal minority opposing Mayor Vincent Gray’s original proposal were most vociferously represented by Council member Jim Graham. Graham was also the lone vote against a compromise to initially restrict the policy to the night before all 11 federal and D.C. holidays as well as Friday through Sunday preceding Memorial Day and Labor Day and when New Year’s Eve and July 4th fall on a Monday.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the introduction last week by Council member Mary Cheh of legislation to impose a whopping 40 percent increase in sidewalk café public space rental fees. The measure, publicly endorsed by Graham, was in stark contrast to the widely held notion that tax and fee increases are inappropriate in a city with some of the very highest rates nationwide. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, through a spokesperson, opposed Cheh’s proposal, emphasizing that it violated his popular pledge of “no new taxes, fees or fines.”
Following overnight pushback from hospitality businesses, Cheh withdrew the provision the next day. Since she hadn’t even discussed in advance her proposed fee increase with those affected, as is her signature tactic, the quick smack down was as delicious as any meal enjoyed al fresco on a restaurant patio.
Setting aside Cheh’s propensity for ever-larger extraction of monies from local businesses combined with her ceaseless creation of costly new mandates, a simple question emerged. Why would she and Graham promote an additional hospitality industry burden generating only a few hundreds-of-thousands in city fees when a much larger goldmine of money lies sitting on the table for the taking?
In early April, D.C. CFO Natwar Gandhi reported that revenue from alcohol sales had climbed by seven percent during the first half of the fiscal year. A spokesperson for the bean-counter-in-chief advised that the increase was primarily attributable to limited longer bar hours.
During Council debate last spring regarding the modest one-hour proposed extension in the maximum service period at District bars, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier testified there were no public safety or police performance obstacles recommending against adoption. That assertion has proved true with trouble-free results.
Perhaps most compelling are nightlife venue operators urging an all-the-time implementation of extended hours – until 3 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 a.m. on weekends – motivated by an indirect benefit. Ask nightlife entrepreneurs in entertainment districts what single policy change would most improve their ability to provide problem-solving operational management to discover the universal response – uniform extension in the allowable service period.
Despite Graham’s refusal to embrace experiences elsewhere utilizing extended operating hours as a proven strategy to reduce the inherent pressures of simultaneous forced egress of thousands of patrons in popular nightlife areas, it works in the intuitive real-world ways expected. In fact, hospitality businesses often close earlier than permitted on current later-hour dates due to patrons having progressively departed in a manner similar to how they arrived. Venues are less concerned on those nights about post-event crowd control issues occurring on city streets and affecting surrounding areas.
Washington can enhance local entertainment amenities and cement the city’s growing status as a dynamic world-class locale – while also securing its financial footing.
The D.C. Council should act to approve a consistent and commonsense year-round policy.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.