It’s a trendsetting civic initiative percolating in U.S. cities large and smaller, inspired by European entertainment capitals once in the forefront of creating them.
The idea makes smart sense.
D.C. Council member Brandon Todd recently introduced legislation to establish an Office of Nightlife, co-sponsored by colleague David Grosso. While hopes are high that initial details of the bill will be refined and revised to improve the local concept, there was strong support among a wide range of stakeholders, including the business community, for the proposal at a public hearing last month.
In Washington, where the nighttime economy is estimated to account for approximately one-quarter to nearly one-third of total economic activity, an Office of Nightlife is essentially a necessity. Identifying the full scope of the overall economic contribution and financial impact generated by the late-night portion of an 18-hour economy should be among the first tasks.
The primary component of the evening-side economy – restaurants, bars, nightclubs, entertainment and performance venues of all sizes and types – comprise the largest hometown private sector business segment. These businesses are major employers and primary tax revenue contributors additionally responsible for making the District an attractive lifestyle destination and spurring population growth.
The modest cost of an Office of Nightlife is fully justified by the city’s substantial dependence on the nightlife economy from all nighttime enterprise sectors for its fiscal health, financial stability, and cultural vitality.
Most important is that D.C. legislators do it right.
Informally referred to as “nightlife mayors” or “nighttime czars,” these agency-like offices are often created to either address specific problems or encourage nighttime activity. The opportunity for D.C.’s already assertively regulated, responsibly operated, economically robust, well-regarded and world-class nightlife scene is defined by a more sophisticated context.
Lessons from other cities point to a singular factor in set-up and purpose. An Office of Nightlife functions best as an independent and autonomous entity best able to interact with, and report and make recommendations to, the Council and mayor as well as the plethora of city agencies relevant to the nighttime economy.
Staff should work closely with an “advisory council” composed of stakeholder group and city agency leadership, with sufficient business representation, but not be “governed” by a five-member “commission” as proposed. There need to be sufficient seats at the table for broad-based input and beneficial guidance, but an Office of Nightlife is best tasked with developing a long-range vision based on a broad perspective not defined by narrow or parochial interests.
Above all else, an Office of Nightlife should be envisioned as a resource, not a redundancy. Specifically not designated to handle licensing approvals or adjudicate individual regulatory matters, it should likewise not be reduced to duplicative compliance and enforcement tasks the responsibility of multiple agencies.
The focus should be through a wide lens providing a comprehensive macro view.
Identifying and reducing licensing and regulatory barriers to entry for independent enterprise and innovative entrepreneurs should be a primary objective. Ensuring that licensing protocols and regulatory requirements are rational and sensible, serve a compelling purpose, and are conducted within an expeditious timeframe is critical.
D.C. enjoys national distinction for a nightlife environment and nighttime enterprise overwhelmingly comprised of independent local small businesses. Preserving and protecting this unique characteristic and community asset must be the mission.
Residents desire dining, socializing, and entertainment venues close to home in livable and walkable neighborhoods that are vibrant, appealing, and with nighttime activity fostering safer communities.
Continued successful integration of mostly moderate-sized and commonly multi-activity nighttime establishments in residential areas, the fastest growing and most popular of local hospitality, presents manageable challenges. Accessible technical resources such as noise mitigation design and coordinated government planning in streetscape and transportation management, public safety, and similar strategic solutions are required.
D.C. offers residents, neighbors, and visitors acclaimed nightlife amenities and modern nighttime environs. The city deserves an Office of Nightlife structured and sanctioned to support and sustain that achievement.