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Bartender Zac Hoffman spent a recent Wednesday filling out his application to become D.C.’s first director of nightlife and culture. More than 100 people have applied to be the city’s so-called “night mayor,” a full-time job that will pay between $97,434 to $118,000 a year, according to the city’s job listing.
“We’ve seen the positive momentum of politically active restaurant employees in the last nine months and it shouldn’t end with that—we should keep going forward,” he says. Hoffman, who works at The Riggsby, testified in favor of the bill repealing Initiative 77 at a marathon September hearing. He recognizes that he might not be the best fit for the job, but wants the city to hire someone with hospitality industry know-how.
“When you’ve been in it, you have a different perspective,” Hoffman says. “The ins and outs of the trade are very nuanced. If you don’t live that life, you probably don’t have a very good grasp.”
Nightlife industry professionals want one of their own to become the nightlife director, and they’re counting on the individual who gets the job to advocate for bars and clubs’ interests. Given that the position falls under the purview of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has advocated for the city’s hospitality and tourism industries, there is reason to believe the new director will do just that.
“The mayor has been super helpful to the industry over the last year,” says Fritz Brogan, who owns Hawthorne and two locations of Mission. “She helped us get open in Navy Yard early and was a huge advocate for small business.” She also pushed for the repeal of Initiative 77.
Brogan attended the Oct. 18 event at The Park at 14th where Bowser signed the bill creating the office of nightlife and culture. Attendees wore glow necklaces and a Caribbean dance troupe performed. Before Bowser put pen to paper on the bill Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd introduced, she addressed the impetus behind the new office and director.
“We’re over 700,000 people in D.C. now,” she told the crowd. “People are living in places where they didn’t used to live; they’re going to work in places where they haven’t worked before; we have new transportation options like Uber and Lyft that have to be accommodated… For all of us to be able to get along in the city we love, we need to be very intentional about these uses.”
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.
“You’ve got businesses and residents needing to figure out how they’re going to get along in order to both benefit,” says Bowser’s deputy chief of staff Lindsey Parker. “We need somebody that knows D.C. and understands the history of these neighborhoods and the types of quality-of-life issues that older and younger generations are looking for and how we strike a compromise.”
Parker says the first year the nightlife director is in place, they’ll go on a “listening tour” to understand the 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. economy. Responsibilities mentioned in the job listing imply the nightlife director will be a liaison between late-operating businesses and government agencies like the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) and the District Department of Transportation to ensure policies and procedures are in place and being enforced.
The mayor’s office is already receiving some pushback, according to Parker. “Some residents are saying it’s another opportunity for business interests to get ahead of residents,” she says. “I fundamentally don’t agree with that.”
While Parker suggests the nightlife director will strike a balance between all stakeholders, nightlife establishment owners are looking for a friendly regulatory climate that benefits their bottom lines and positions the city to reel in more tax revenue from places that pulse late into the night. According the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), D.C. restaurants did $3.8 billion in sales in 2017.
“We need someone who can connect all of the departments together, which hasn’t happened yet,” says Park at 14th proprietor Marc Barnes. “Everybody just points the finger at everybody else.” He wants the city to have his back when tackling underage drinking. Barnes says he confiscates anywhere from 40 to 100 suspected fake IDs per month.
Back in 2014, Barnes spent 11 hours in a jail cell for taking away and destroying a Liberian driver’s license and residence permit he believed were fake. He was charged with misdemeanor second-degree theft and destruction of property. “The venues get blamed for what’s taking place,” he says. “When did we blame banks for getting robbed?”
Barnes doesn’t think the city punishes underage drinkers to an appropriate extent. “Look how much the city makes in tax revenue … but I don’t get a say or a vote?” he asks. “Hopefully this will somehow get everyone a seat at the table.”
Mitch Mathis, who has been putting on events at D.C. clubs since he was 17 and is opening his first restaurant on U Street NW, wants a nightlife director who is local, well-rounded, and empathetic. “A lot of times in nightlife, you only hear what you’re doing wrong and what’s coming against you,” he says. “Restaurants and clubs make the city so much money, but they’re still against you. Even the ANCs [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions]. The nightlife mayor could help bridge that gap.”
Mathis wants the director to push for extended hours for clubs, allowing them to stay open until 3 a.m. on weekdays. “Not being able to serve liquor until at least 2:30 a.m. causes a lot of issues,” he says. According to Mathis, when people get to the club at 1 a.m. and have to leave an hour later they don’t have time to sober up before spilling out onto the streets, causing fights and car accidents. “I’m out every single night watching that,” he says.
Columbia Room owner Derek Brown believes having a nightlife director is a good idea so long as the job isn’t granted to somebody with no nightlife industry experience. “The number one problem that exists in terms of the mayor’s office or really D.C. governance and nightlife in general is communication,” he says. “Very often [the government] has smart programs and thoughtful approaches, but they’re not being publicized.”
He wants the nightlife director to address increased concerns around sexual violence and sexual harassment. There is language in the law that talks about sexual harassment training, and an ABRA spokesperson confirms that will be a part of the job. “Alcohol is becoming weaponized,” Brown says. “We need someone to set guidelines and enforce them. It’s such an issue right now, rape and rape culture, and so much of it comes out of bars and restaurants.”
But Brown also knows that the nightlife director will spend much of their time addressing issues between ANCs and businesses. “ANCs have problems with trash and noise and businesses want to be successful and don’t want to be hampered by NIMBY stuff,” Brown says.
John Guggenmos is both an ANC commissioner in single member district 2F02 and the owner of the bars Trade and Number Nine. Before it closed this summer, he also co-owned Town Danceboutique. “I know what it feels like to be blamed for everything as an operator,” he says. “I also know what it feels like to live by a place that I wish wouldn’t be in existence.”
That said, he’s hoping for a nightlife director with real-life experience in restaurants and bars who isn’t a policy wonk and instead works to promote and protect nightlife. “You can legislate anything,” he says. “You can try to get a policy to find your way out of a problem, but if it’s not a real solution, it’s just more red tape … They have to really defend what we’re doing.”
Guggenmos’ establishments are gay bars, which he says have significant cultural value in the District. “Years ago when I came here, that’s where you met people,” he says. “That’s where you exchanged ideas. That was the safe place.” When Town closed, Guggenmos received an outpouring of support that showed him the sentiment remains. “There are some great ANC commissioners that are really working hard to find a place for a venue like Town in Ward 1,” he says. “That’s the type of support I’m hoping that we get from this position.”
John Fanning, the commissioner of single member district 2F04, has lived in the Logan Circle and Shaw neighborhoods for much of the 34 years he’s been in D.C. “I recall that when I [first] lived in the neighborhood, we only had four liquor licenses and now we have 114, if not I’m not mistaken,” he says. In 2017, there were 2,267 restaurants in D.C., according to RAMW. This year only brought more growth in neighborhoods like The Wharf, Navy Yard, Petworth, H Street NE, Brookland, and Shaw.
Fanning seeks a nightlife director that provides mediation and recommendations regarding issues like noise, public space management, and sanitation services. Specifically, he hopes the nightlife director bears down on bars and restaurants that draw lines impacting public space usage.
Like Guggenmos, Fanning has competing interests. He currently works for the Department of Small and Local Business Development. The director of that department will play a role in the Mayor’s commission on nightlife and culture.
While Mayor Bowser and Councilmember Todd’s remarks at the party-like bill signing highlighted nightlife as an important component of D.C. that attracts visitors and conventions and enriches the lives of locals, not everyone is buying what the city is selling.
“I have very little excitement about it,” says Brian Miller, a former nightclub owner and the co-founder of Edit Lab at Streetsense, a hospitality industry-focused design agency. “It’s not really a bill to help nightlife, it’s a bill to resolve complaints about nightlife.” He’s been studying the duties of other night directors in London, Amsterdam, and New York.
The “nachtburgemeester” in Amsterdam, for example, works for a private foundation, rather than the government. His duties include making sure nightlife is “lively, diverse, and inclusive” and recognizing that “the night should be stimulating and push boundaries.”
Miller wishes there was a greater cultural preservation component in the D.C. job instead of an emphasis on future development and the tensions tethered to it. “Town closed, the go-go scene is almost gone, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for D.C. government,” he says. “There’s no cultural component here. It seems to be about making nightlife invisible to residents that aren’t a part of it instead of celebrating it.”