Looking Back on 2023: Nighttime Economy Management Trends & Accomplishments
Ben Van Houten - San Francisco, CA
The Nighttime Economy Landscape in 2023
In cities around the United States, 2023 proved to be a year of contradictions for nighttime economies. Nightlife business activity continued to broadly rebound, although inflation, international conflicts, the continued impact of remote work, and labor shortages challenged this recovery. At the same time, conflicts between businesses and nearby residents have reemerged with nightlife returning, along with other pre-pandemic obstacles like permitting difficulties and a high cost of doing business.
Despite these challenges or perhaps because of them, cities across the country continue to adopt plans, strategies, and initiatives to manage their nighttime economies more effectively. More than ever, nighttime economy managers are leading or informing this critical work, and new cities continue to create or contemplate these positions as a component of their nighttime work.
This summary highlights the many significant efforts state and local governments undertook in 2023 to more effectively manage and strengthen their nighttime economies. In doing so, it offers numerous examples of approaches that nighttime economy professionals, government allies, and advocates can seek to adapt to address needs in their communities.
Strategies to Enhance Quality of Life at Night
Several cities adopted new strategies to tackle quality of life challenges in downtown districts with dense concentrations of nightlife. Austin sought to ensure that the city’s Sixth Street Historic District remained a “welcoming, vibrant, safe and well-planned entertainment district” through a variety of interventions, including new safety barriers, lighting improvements, an accreditation program for operators, and attracting a broader diversity of businesses within the district. Responding to safety concerns, Orlando’s City Council adopted a one-year moratorium on new applications for downtown nightclubs. It established a new permit for bars and clubs selling alcohol between midnight and 2 am. To obtain an “After Midnight Alcohol Sales Permit,” a business must also comply with additional safety and occupancy-related requirements.
Other cities pursued new approaches to tackle downtown sound and unpermitted street vending. Facing concerns about excessive noise on Broadway in Nashville, the Metro Council passed a new ordinance requiring businesses to keep speakers near doors and windows turned to face inside the premises instead of projecting sound into the street. An interdepartmental team in New Orleans increased enforcement on unlicensed food vending, citing health and safety concerns and competition between vendors and brick-and-mortar businesses.
Notably, New York City ended the year by sunsetting the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (“MARCH”) program, a nightlife-focused code enforcement initiative led by the NYPD that had drawn extensive criticism for raids that felt heavy-handed and punitive. Instead, the Office of Nightlife will lead a new Coordinating a United Resolution with Establishments (CURE) initiative that stakeholders characterized as “a ‘solution-oriented’ approach to nightlife safety [where] ‘enforcement will be a last resort.’”
Right-Sizing Code Provisions to Support Thriving and Diverse Nighttime Economies
Nighttime economy innovation always moves faster than outdated code provisions, making code modernization necessary in cities looking to grow and sustain thriving nightlife. In 2023, several cities sought to streamline processes to make it easier for businesses to host live entertainment. Philadelphia adopted new legislation, developed in collaboration with the Director of Nighttime Economy, to revise the city’s definition of nightclub so that requirements intended for nightclubs would no longer be imposed upon restaurants and bars seeking to offer some live performances.
Austin amended its zoning code to define live performance venues as a distinct use, separate from bars and nightclubs, but still allowing alcohol consumption. In several zoning districts across the city, venues, theaters and other creative businesses may now be established without special zoning approvals required for bars outside of the downtown area. With these reforms, the number of properties in Austin where a live music venue can be established without a zoning change increased by 685%. Excluding the downtown area, where live music venues were already broadly permitted, the number of new potential properties for music venues increased by nearly 2,000%.
Similarly, Sacramento released the results of two studies last year, both of which identified a need to expand permit flexibility to create new live music opportunities and grow the local music economy. This year, the city is looking to expand its entertainment permitting options in order to reduce barriers that currently subject cafes and brewpubs that want to host live performances to the same standards as higher-impact venues.
San Francisco also adopted reforms to reduce barriers facing nightlife businesses. One measure granted nightlife businesses access to priority permit processing and lifted caps on restaurants and bars in several neighborhoods. Another item waived fees for businesses to continue offering outdoor music and entertainment in parklets and streamlined entertainment permit processes.
Meeting the Needs of the Live Music Sector
Governments also delivered new forms of assistance to the still-recovering live music sector in 2023. Austin’s Iconic Venue Fund – a new program that is part of the Austin Cultural Trust and designed to prevent the displacement of longstanding music venues – issued its first grant to the Hole in the Wall, providing $1.6 million for rental assistance and building improvements that enabled the venue to sign a new 20-year lease. Statewide, Texas opened the Texas Music Incubator Rebate Program in late 2023, an innovative initiative offering rebates of up to $100,000 in state alcohol taxes to qualifying music venues and festival promoters.
Beyond financial assistance, other new efforts sought to rightsize permitting requirements for live music venues. In New Orleans, the Office of Nighttime Economy spearheaded efforts to implement musician loading zones in front of permitted entertainment venues so that musicians may safely unload their gear safely without risk of being cited. In California, the state launched a new liquor license for live music venues that enables venues to serve beer, wine, and spirits while admitting patrons of all ages and without serving food; legislation adopted in 2023 enables these licensees to host private events.
Nighttime Economy Management Continues to Grow
More US cities hired nighttime economy managers in 2023, continuing the movement’s steady growth. In March, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu appointed Corean Reynolds to serve as the city’s first Director of Nightlife Economy within the Economic Opportunity and Inclusion Cabinet. Reynolds’ mandate includes engaging internal and external stakeholders to better understand the post-pandemic challenges to a nightlife economy, working to redefine and reimagine late night in Boston, and analyzing citywide initiatives through a racial equity lens with the goal of achieving Cabinet-level priorities.”
In Dallas, Nathan Armstrong was recently hired as the first Manager of Nighttime Economy and Responsible Hospitality within the city’s Convention and Event Services Department. In that capacity, he is responsible for “executing strategy to support, attract and retain businesses within the nighttime economy by utilizing city resources across multiple departments” and overseeing “the resources required to balance public safety, quality of life, and vibrancy within the marketplace to create a positive social experience for residents and visitors.”
After New York City’s inaugural Executive Director of the Office of Nightlife, Ariel Palitz, stepped down last year, in November Mayor Eric Adams announced the appointment of a new director, Jeffrey Garcia, to lead the office’s important work to support New York’s nightlife sector. The Mayor also signed legislation to transition the Office of Nightlife into the city’s Department of Small Business Services to improve the connection between nightlife businesses with small business assistance resources.
Existing nighttime economy teams in cities like Sacramento and New Orleans expanded in 2023. And nighttime economy managers received recognition for their important work, with Joe Reilly, Iowa City’s Nighttime Mayor, named the “Person of the Year” by the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Finally, in places like Denver, Des Moines, and Savannah, government leaders and industry advocates discussed the possibility of creating nighttime economy manager positions. This momentum signals further expansion of the movement likely on the horizon.
New and Emerging Topics for Nighttime Management
While much or all of the work discussed above will likely continue in the new year, several other themes have emerged for potential nighttime economy management work in the coming year. First, cities will continue to transition from pandemic-era parklet or “streatery” programs to more permanent but less flexible programs to support continued opportunities for outdoor dining. San Francisco has already implemented its post-pandemic Shared Spaces program, while New York City will launch its permanent Dining Out NYC program early this year.
Second, cities in a number of states have established open container zones – streets and sidewalks where patrons may walk freely with alcoholic beverages purchased from nearby restaurants and bars. Such programs have proven popular in cities in Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio, among others. They will likely inspire interest from others looking for creative ways to support outdoor activities and nightlife businesses.
More broadly, several cities working on economic recovery strategies view the nighttime economy as key to catalyzing the rejuvenation of downtowns. Seattle and San Francisco, for example, both explicitly identified leveraging nightlife, arts, culture, and entertainment to support the recovery and transformation of their downtown districts. Efforts to solidify downtowns as arts and entertainment districts offer the potential to further showcase the nighttime economy’s central and vital role in sustaining dynamic, vibrant, and healthy cities.
NITECAP Is Leading Nighttime Economy Management Forward
In 2023, NITECAP deepened our work to share experiences, policies, and practices, raise awareness about the nighttime economy and culture across disciplines, and highlight the value and importance of this role for governments. We published two in-depth policy papers on critical topics – Planning for Entertainment-Related Sound and Alcohol Licensing and The Nighttime Economy: New Strategies to Support Vibrant Communities – along with a frequently-updated blog showcasing insights from nighttime managers across the country.
We also provided insights to reporters about the value of nighttime economy management. We shared best practices and advice in packed sessions at the Sociable City Summit and International City/County Management Association Annual Conference.
This year, we will be deepening these efforts to help equip nighttime economy managers, allied government professionals, and nighttime economy champions with the information and resources they need to support the development of vibrant nighttime economy and culture across the US. Your support is critical to making this possible, so we hope that you’ll become a member of NITECAP and help us continue to build this emerging national movement.
-Ben Van Houten