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None of the bartenders with political ambitions got the “Nightlife Mayor” gig. No surprise there. Today, Mayor Muriel Bowser named Shawn Townsend to the position, whose official title is “Director of The Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture.”
Townsend comes from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, where he supervised six investigators conduct routine inspections of businesses that hold licenses to serve alcohol. They also handle complaints such as violations of settlement agreements; investigate incidents inside or near bars and clubs; and work to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors.
Before joining ABRA, Townsend worked as an investigator at the Office of Police Complaints and within D.C. public schools.
The job description lists such responsibilities as serving as the liaison between nightlife establishments and city policies and procedures, so Townsend appears well-suited for the job. The enacted law contains the words “complaint,” “concern,” or “issue” nine times. The director of nightlife will mitigate tension between residents and nearby nightlife venues as it relates to rats, trash, pooling vomit, traffic, and noise abatement.
While the mayor’s office has said it was inspired by other cities with a “nightlife mayor” such as London, Amsterdam, and New York, it feels like D.C. is whiffing on what’s important since there are already city agencies in place to address complaints and enforce laws. There’s an opportunity for this office and its leader to do more than play referee.
As former nightclub owner and restaurant designer Brian Miller points out, the “nachtburgemeester” in Amsterdam works to ensure nightlife is lively, diverse, and inclusive.
Little such rhetoric has come out of the mayor’s office. And the rate at which the city has expanded and developed during the mayor’s first term in office (just look at The Wharf) suggests the emphasis will continue to be on what’s new instead of preserving existing cultural institutions.
“In New York, one of the items the bill focused on was nightlife wages and workforce safety,” Miller told City Paper in October. “That’s not part of the D.C. bill at all … It’s really geared toward basically resident complaints.The same thing you see come through ABRA and ANC meetings. It’s just another layer to field the same issues.”
But just because the job description and the conversation surrounding the director of nightlife position hasn’t touched on some of the issues Miller mentions thus far, it doesn’t mean Townsend won’t carve his own path and focus on cultural enrichment and labor issues. City Paper’s request for comment from Townsend was not returned.
The D.C. nightlife industry was hoping one of its own would become the director of nightlife, positioning the new hire to advocate for the interests of restaurants, bars, and clubs. Townsend briefly dabbled in hospitality. According to the mayor’s office, he helped launch and manage a bar and lounge in Charleston, South Carolina.
That’s not enough for John Guggenmos, who owns Trade and Number Nine, and used to own Town Danceboutique. “I’m thoroughly disappointed,” he says. “We wanted someone with real world experience. ‘I once opened a bar in South Carolina,’ isn’t enough. [Townsend] is coming more from the policy world. I’m not saying that his experience isn’t important, but the job description was really written in such a way that drew concern. I’ll see the mayor on a walk tomorrow and I’ll let it be known.”
Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger isn’t as put off by Townsend’s appointment, or at least she isn’t saying so. She says she commends both the mayor and Councilmember Brandon Todd for establishing and funding the Office of Nightlife and Culture. Todd was the councilmember who introduced the original bill.
“In a city where we have seen tremendous growth and opportunity coupled with challenges and concerns, it is important to have someone in that role to address all that comes with a growing nightlife scene, as well as a keen understanding of how to interface across agencies to help small business,” Hollinger says. “Shawn Townsend brings valuable insight to the role through his time spent within D.C. government as well as his work as an industry professional.”