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Downtown Iowa City The Possibilities of Nighttime Management in Town & Gown

Joe Reilly - Iowa City, IA

It’s me, Joe, Nighttime Mayor in the Iowa City Downtown District, as in “even Iowa City has a Night Mayor!?”. That Iowa City. Well, as the second person to hold this role in the Iowa City Downtown District, I wanted to clear the air about that last statement and cover my role’s unique strengths amongst my other US nighttime managing colleagues while also demonstrating the common threads that we still share in our work. A little bit about my employer, The Iowa City Downtown District: we are a Self Supported Municipal Improvement District, more commonly known as a business improvement district. We do not create policy, we advocate for it. All while helping create and support conditions that welcome visitors, shape the future landscape and draw feet into our streets. Iowa City proper is a city of 75,000 and with students the city grows to approximately 110,000 every year. Our district is approximately 15 square blocks that hosts the dense collection of retail, dining, arts performance venues and bars for the community, all situated across the street from the University of Iowa. Go Hawks! Because the nature of the SSMID is to support those that pay our tax levy, my work is very targeted and intentional. While our property owners are also members, the levy is most often passed on in a triple net lease to their tenants (along with facility maintenance, taxes/insurance, utilities). Our organization has an ability and charge to directly work with levy payers through programs, events and marketing. Our rate is $2.50 for every $1,000 valuation.

Although our budget is limited and derived from that specific collection, a portion of our initiatives and support is supplemented by partner stakeholders. The University of Iowa recognizes the worth of our organization as an appealing marketing component and a facilitator of the student and faculty living experience. Consequently, they contribute to our annual budget to support our endeavors.

These funds get used sometimes in a formalized ongoing program or sometimes in an ad hoc fashion based on demand. Meeting with businesses and hearing their pinch points is the impetus for my work. Here are some examples of how nighttime governance can respond nimbly in an improvement district as seen through my work: 

Better Bathrooms This was a program I launched based on feedback I was getting from businesses and a presentation I saw from Responsible Hospitality Institute’s (RHI) Alicia Scholer.

Community Resource Signage Sometimes I encounter multiple groups that are working on similar outcomes. That’s the nature of the work, introducing these nightlife stakeholders to each other and realizing the strength of combining their efforts. They agreed to park their resources on the same signage highlighting community resources, and shared the costs for the printing and frames. I helped with ‘the last mile’; getting these into the hands of businesses and installing them in their restroom facility. 

Planning for People - Football game overflow It’s no secret that Downtown experiences its highest use in nightlife and even more so when the Hawkeyes have a home football game. To account for this influx of people and their needs for access to restroom facilities, I take out the permits and contract for port-o-johns in our alleys all weekend from Friday through Sunday. 

Employee Recognition Program This was at the request of the nightlife community and is a way we can value and feature their employees by showing appreciation.  

Another program that is in the formative stages is a property improvement program for nighttime that supports the use of the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. These principles include natural surveillance, access control and territorial reinforcement contributing to the public space. Hopefully more to come on that in the future. 

Along with examples like these, another key component of my work is cultivating, promoting and sustaining arts and nightlife culture. I manage a district-wide gift card program that is predominately used or redeemed in our nightlife. I corral all of our happenings on to the downtown events calendar and curate a featured playlist of live music artists playing the district monthly. Check it out on the Nighttime Mayor Link Tree. Across cities, the common element nighttime professionals all share in nighttime governance is liaison work. Not only do we get to share the resources and contacts that our businesses seek, but we also get to tell the story of nightlife in our city with the visitors we meet. 

Here’s what mine looks like: Iowa City is a vibrant college town with a diverse mix of visitors, students and ‘townies.” Sometimes these bubbles of nightlife proximate around each other and other nights they all merge together, usually around sports. I’ll field inquiries about where the students visit and where a more mature crowd goes. Where are the places with a dancefloor, and where can you have a conversation with the person across the table? What’s down here in nightlife? What is the state of nightlife in Downtown Iowa City?

I am available for a handful of year round admission visit events with the University of Iowa to share insights and field questions about the area. I’m there to respond to headlines they may be reading online or in parent groups and advocate for nightlife. The key difference is I am not the enforcement, nor employed by an agency that enforces. I’m there to advocate for nightlife businesses, explain what I’m seeing or experiencing in their business, communicate regulatory expectations, and explore new solutions with them if needed.

I still interface with government, public safety and community stakeholders. For me, that looks like inviting business owners and public safety officials to our standing Restaurant and Bar forum meetings, greeting new businesses with signed leases and asking what information they need about operating in Downtown Iowa City like the public right of way, temporary food licenses, event permits, patio permits, our unique code overlay for alcohol licenses in Downtown.

If your workplace is situated in a college town with a vibrant concentration of nightlife, where a business improvement district intersects with the university area, offering nighttime governance becomes a valuable service that you can initiate to benefit your members. ~Joe Reilly Iowa City, IA

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