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What is the office’s mandate and how is it serving the nightlife industry in the District? And what role can Townsend and his staff play in preserving and promoting the city’s culture as the region deals with issues of gentrification that have brought community tensions into the spotlight in recent months?
Now six months into the job, we hear from Shawn Townsend about his priorities for the city’s nightlife and culture. And Raman Santra, the force behind the popular nightlife blog, Barred in DC, tells us what the industry hopes to see from the city’s first “Night Mayor.”
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about the myths surrounding partner violence and hear about local resources for survivors. But first when D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the creation of the Office of Nightlife and Culture last fall hundreds of people lined up to apply. But what is the office's mandate and how is it serving the nightlife industry in the District? And what can the nightlife industry and District residents expect from this new office and the person who runs it?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Shawn Townsend. He is the Director of The Mayor's Office of Nightlife and Culture in the District of Columbia. Shawn Townsend, thank you for joining us.
SHAWN TOWNSENDThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Raman Santra. He is an attorney and D.C. resident. He is the force behind "Barred in D.C.," a popular blog and social media account covering the District's nightlife and bar scene. Raman, thank you for joining us.
RAMAN SANTRAThanks for having me.
NNAMDIShawn Townsend, there were a lot of jokes about professional partying and VIP tables when the mayor announced this new office last fall, but what does the office of nightlife and culture actually do?
TOWNSENDThank you. Yes, that was a -- I've heard that a few times coming in. Our office is tasked with the responsibility of serving as intermediary between businesses, particularly nightlife businesses, District agencies and District residents. So we serve as sort of like a mitigator or bridge builder between those three stakeholders.
NNAMDIWhen we say nightlife, what kind of businesses are we talking about? How are nightlife businesses different than others in the hospitality industry?
SANTRASo the way is defined by legislation as bars, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, art galleries, museums, as well as sporting venues. So all of that makes up what we've defined as -- what City Council with the legislation defines as nightlife.
NNAMDIRaman Santra, you've been covering the bar scene and nightlife in D.C. for the past six years with your blog and social media accounts known as "Barred in D.C.," a clever play on words, because in your day job you're actually a lawyer. And you've been a resident of the District for more than a decade. How would you describe the nightlife scene in the city?
SANTRAWell, I think the nightlife scene right now in D.C. is very -- there's a lot of it. There's a lot of bars and restaurants in this town. And over a course of years it's sort of developed into a very vibrant scene. You go to a lot of spots on weekends and they're, you know, the bar is two or three deep, a lot of spots. And there's a lot of great craft beer bars, cocktail spots, wine bars. It's really a vibrant scene.
NNAMDIIs there a difference between, in your view nightlife and night culture in the city?
SANTRAWell, when I think of nightlife I'm thinking about bars. I'm thinking about restaurants. I think about concert venues, because a lot of them are, you know, double as bars and restaurants when they're not showing shows. So when I think of nightlife I think about that. I think a culture maybe a little bit different. Art galleries, theaters, I think it's a little bit different sort of scene. So I think it's all part of a culture, but when I'm thinking of culture I'm thinking more of those artistic sorts of venues.
NNAMDIShawn Townsend, you beat out nearly 500 applicants for the position of director of this office. What makes you uniquely qualified for this job? What were you doing before?
TOWNSENDI left ABRA, the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration as a supervisor investigator in the Enforcement Division. So I believe that those skills, my experience working at that agency has helped me to provide that information of the regulations to nightlife owners and operators and staff as well. So I definitely see, you know, the last five years spent there as an advantage to be able to use that, you know, that information now to benefit the businesses.
NNAMDIWhat did you do at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration?
TOWNSENDI was an investigator in the Enforcement Division.
NNAMDIAnd that meant you had a lot of contacts with businesses.
TOWNSENDYes. And I've often worked until 4:00 or 5:00 A.M.
TOWNSENDSo, you know, routine inspections, monitoring different corridors of the city.
NNAMDISo that made you familiar with the nightlife that was going on in the city.
NNAMDIWhy did the mayor think that this office was necessary? What's the big picture here?
TOWNSENDWell, I think the big picture is both Mayor Bowser and Councilmember Brandon Todd recognized the financial impact that not only hospitality, but the nightlife industry has on the District. And, you know, prior to this office being in existence there was not a one stop resource center for the nightlife industry to go to for let's say you're having issues with a regulatory agency. You're trying to figure out how to stay in compliance or, you know, you've applied for a permit of a license and you're not getting that feedback from that District agency. So this office allows us to provide some type of interagency collaboration. Talk about streamlining processes so that we make it easier for the consumer.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please, because we're about to go to the telephones and talk with Ian Calendar who is in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IANHi. Good morning. Good afternoon, everyone. And, yeah, I just wanted to speak on behalf of Director Townsend. I represent Blind Whino, which is transitioning over to Culture House in Southwest D.C. And we've had a lot of issues from everyone in the neighborhood assuming that we were a nightclub or, you know, a party spot. But the classification of our facility is in an art gallery and a museum. And part of our issue has been with DCRA basically giving us a hard time with our certificate of occupancy, our permitting, and our licensing and how we sell and distribute, you know, food and beverage.
IANBut Director Townsend was able to establish some meetings with key personnel in zoning and then other agencies such as Office of Planning. And I think from an entertainment aspect it is very critical of his office to, you know, ensure the public safety aspect of experiences and also how businesses are actually doing things from a legal standpoint. So I just wanted to call in and say --
NNAMDIThis is something that the director did after he was appointed to be director or while he was with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration?
IANActually it was after, but if I wanted to speak on behalf of him being an investigator, we were actually doing a similar project on A Street in 2015, which is how we first met each other. We activated another cultural space in the corner of 7th and 8th, which was just a dilapidated warehouse. It didn't have any activity on 18,000 square feet. And we thought that we were in compliance from an alcohol stance. We had a catering license, but yet we didn't have the proper catering license. We had our occupancy and then ABRA came and they investigated and they said, "Hey, you can't sell and serve any alcohol." So that was my first experience on trying to understand the complications of getting a certificate of occupancy through DCRA and getting an ABRA license.
NNAMDIGlad you were able to explain that, because I was about to ask Shawn Townsend, what's the difference between what you did as Ian just described with ABRA as opposed to what you're doing now?
TOWNSENDThat's a good question. We -- as an investigator with ABRA I was enforcer of laws and regulations of alcohol licensed establishments, but now I'm a business advocate of nightlife establishments. So not just, you know, places with an alcohol license. These are also places without alcohol as a component of their business. This is nightlife in general. So, you know, there is some places that are open at night and have operate and have patrons that don't serve alcohol. So those places are included as well.
NNAMDIRaman Santra, do you think this Office of Nightlife and Culture was necessary and what role do you think it should play?
SANTRAWell, you know, whether it's necessary I think you've seen a lot of residents incoming in D.C. the last few years. And, you know, moving to neighborhoods where there may be a nightlife or nightlife is coming to neighborhoods where resident were already and that's a new thing. So I think it's helpful to have an office like this who is sort of a facilitator. What I see as this office is to sort of help bar owners and restaurant owners and establishment owners understand sort of how to go through and sort of facilitate and streamline their interactions with D.C. government, getting permits, all that kind of thing. And also sort of mediate disputes with neighbors residents and sort of help make them sure that they're heard.
SANTRAI think maybe there is a little bit of confusion perhaps by, you know, the stories in the local media in about calling it a night mayor -- a night time mayor, where it's compared with other folks in London, in New York, in Amsterdam where the position is a little bit different. And I think there is some expectations that are raised perhaps unfairly. And I think D.C. -- the Bowser Administration may have overhyped the position by talking about how many applicants for the job and maybe gave the wrong impression to folks about what the position was going to be. But I think it's a good position to have sort of a centralized where, you know, clearing house to sort of deal with these issues.
NNAMDIPeople in the know tell me that one Raman Santra was an applicant for this position. Is that correct?
SANTRAThat is correct.
NNAMDIShawn Townsend, the concept of night mayor originated in Amsterdam. And the night mayor there is tasked with making sure the nightlife of the city is lively, diverse, and inclusive. Other cities have tasked their nightlife directors to focus on equitable wages for nightlife industry workers and workforce safety and development. But what are you priorities right now? What is on your radar? How much of that stuff is on your radar?
TOWNSENDExcuse me. I think the overall, you know, responsibility of this office is to promote the nighttime economy. But it's, you know, it's my belief that in order for us to get to a place where we're promoting, you know, establishments we need to ensure that businesses are trained and aware of, you know, compliance -- not only compliance but information from District government agencies that could indeed help the business.
TOWNSENDSo I'm doing a training day on June 4th, at the D.C. Housing Finance Agency where we're bringing in all our District partners for 30 -- 45 minute segments, And we're talking about all issues that impact nightlife. So this is something an event for not only the operators, but their staff, their bartenders, their servers to come and learn about, you know, if you want to start a business or what's the process of filing taxes for a business.
TOWNSENDYou know, when I was at ABRA I would always go out with tax and revenue officials to serve notice on a business saying that they were 100 -- 200 sometimes even 500,000 in the rear and it is because they didn't know. This is an opportunity for us to bring those agencies to the table to notify businesses of opportunities and things that they should be aware of. So it's the education and technical assistance piece that we're working on. So keep in mind we're five months in. You know, roughly five to six months so we are at the same time building an office from scratch as well as being accessible to the public in terms of immediate needs of businesses.
NNAMDIYou talk about building an office from scratch. How many employees do you have?
TOWNSENDIt's three including myself.
NNAMDIWell, Joe in Washington D.C. will probably give you a chance to demonstrate how you do your job. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEKojo, thank you very much. Always enjoy your show, certainly interesting conversations today. I live in a neighborhood in which Blind Whino is in the middle of. I support having nightlife in D.C. But I think there's a time and a place for everything. You know, Blind Whino, you can call it a museum. You can call it an art venue if you'd like, but in reality it becomes a nightclub. We're a very residential area, not much business around that. And also one of the brand new homeless shelters is going up right next door. And it just creates too many problems when they bring their venues there. They claim that they have security and that they keep the place clean, but we usually find that Delaware Avenue is trashed out after these events and they don't get cleaned up and there's a lot of noise. So is it really a museum or is it a nightclub?
NNAMDIShawn Townsend. This is your job.
TOWNSENDSo this is part of the balancing act between businesses and residents as you can see. I'm very familiar with Delaware Avenue. I know that there is some development coming to that area not only the homeless shelter, but the school across the street. There's an art complex with an alcohol license, a restaurant and bar coming to that area. So that Delaware Avenue, it's being reformed. But to speak to Blind Whino, I know that Ian has had several events there in the past and they all have been at least to my knowledge arts and culture related. The studio -- the Blind Whino has been open to the community during the week for yoga classes, family fun day events where Councilmember Charles Allen has attended. So I know that his facility has been an art house for not only just artists per say, but to the community as well.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Joe. Raman, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the local nightlife industry right now? Does Joe exemplify that, Joe's call?
SANTRAWell, I think really -- I mean, bars do have issues at some areas of the city coexisting with neighbors and residents, dealing with trash and noise. But I really think that the biggest issue is that one, there's been an explosion of bars and restaurants in D.C. over the last, you know, number of years. I've been here for 12 years and it's exploded. I mean, both in, you know, the variety of restaurants, but a big thing is, again, the locations. I mean, new neighborhoods that didn't really have bars or much a nightlife before now do. I mean --
NNAMDIIvy City being such a neighborhood.
SANTRAIvy City, you know, Park View and Petworth, you know, they've had establishments in the past. But now they have a lot of them and, you know, the Wharf has been created and all that. And so I think that's a challenge with competition. I think it's a big challenge for bars and restaurants. And compounded is rising rents, because landlords, you know, leases are running out. And landlords are asking for more money. And there's only a limit of what folks are willing to pay for a beer or a cocktail or a glass of wine in D.C. And, of course, you got the house -- cost of living for staff and that squeezes the staffing and makes it harder for bars and restaurants to hire staff.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that because people always joke about D.C. being a transient city. But now it seems like its bars and restaurants have become just as transient. We've heard a lot over the last year or so about the number of restaurants opening in city and feels like just as many restaurants closing. What do you think is causing that trend?
SANTRAWell, I think the trend may be overblown a little bit. I mean, it maybe recency bias. But, again, there is lots of restaurant and bars. So when it seems like a number are closing, you know, it's because there are lots of them.
NNAMDIWhat's recency bias?
SANTRARecency bias is just, you know, generally for folks to remember what's closer in mind than the past. And so I think it seems like there's a lot. But, again, they're closing, because of financial issues because, again, there's competition. Leases are ending and the landlords are demanding a lot of money, because in property values are higher. And so folks want to get rate of return on their investment, I assume.
NNAMDISo recency bias is when everybody wants to go to the new latest spot? They're biased in favor of what's recent?
SANTRAThat's part of it. Yes.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Tarik in Washington D.C. Tarik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TARIKHey, how are you doing, Kojo?
TARIKGood. I'm a person who is an artist in Washington. I also happen to be a master electrician. And so out of my studio called Lightbox I provided for several years here in Washington maybe over like 10 years, occupancy certificates for pop-ups such as the 7th and 8th Northeast, when I was with the No Kings Collective. And I've also worked with Art Whino to provide that for them. Get them their occupancy through the Fire Marshall. And also Vitamin Water Live that we did here in Washington at 14th and Florida years ago.
NNAMDIAnd you did all of that without an Office of Nightlife and Culture in the District of Columbia, right?
TARIKYes. We did. And probably the reason why I was successful is because I do know what the requirements are for providing these occupancies or receiving them from the city. The biggest issue is battery backup lighting, emergency exit signs, and in terms of electrical -- go ahead. Sorry.
NNAMDISo the mayor's Office of Nightlife and Culture can help people, who unlike you don't quite understand the processes?
TARIKYes. I think they can. If they simply -- what they do now a checklist for individuals, who want to go into and -- I'm normally involved in pop-ups. And what that means for us is there was nothing there prior to that. And then we come in and transform the space and make it so that artists can show their work. Exhibit their art.
TARIKAnd then make it safe enough for folks to come in and enjoy that whole process.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Raman, how do you see the role of the city and Shawn's office in managing expectations between residents and business owners and in facilitating and helping business owners or people who are trying to open up a business?
SANTRAI think that's a great role for this office, because I think there is a misunderstanding by residents and businesses about what the processes are. For example, you saw this issue with the Pie Shop Bar on 8th Street recently where the bar looked like they were upset because the ANC was protesting their liquor license. But, again, you know, this is terminology. To the general public this might think they're trying to take their license away. So I think an office like this is a good way of explaining to the public, explain to residents, businesses what that really means and sort of, you know, tempering the temperature in the room a little bit.
NNAMDIYou have said in the years you've been covering this you have seen maybe just a total of five licenses denied, right?
NNAMDIOver that period. Finally, Shawn Townsend, what are your long term goals for this office? What do you think the city needs to be thinking about as we look ahead to the nightlife industry and cultural projects Oh, 5, 10 years down the road?
TOWNSENDI think it goes back to the conversation about, you know, places opening and closing. Right now the last numbers I saw was maybe 10 to 12 percent of restaurants and bars close very year. But I think 5 to 10 years down the road the bigger question is -- or the bigger conversation is, you know, maybe Metro extending their hours does impact the nightlife community. And that is a significant piece that, you know, we need to continue to urge and push Metro to stay open later.
TOWNSENDI hear it every day from nightlife owners and even their employees and that takes them out to Maryland and Virginia for other jobs that are closer to their homes in some cases and then also affordable housing. If we are going to keep, you know, nightlife has high turnover in terms of staffing, but it's partially because people can't afford a place to stay. Now the mayor has doubled down on affordable housing in this budget -- 2020 budget, but we can't get to that point unless we have viable options for people to live in the city.
NNAMDIShawn Townsend is the director of the Mayor's Office of Nightlife and Culture in the District of Columbia. Thank you for joining us.
TOWNSENDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRaman Santra is an attorney and D.C. resident. He's the force behind "Barred in D.C." that's a popular blog and social media account covering the District's nightlife and bar scene. Raman, thank you for joining us.
SANTRAThank you for having me.
TOWNSENDCan I say one more thing?
NNAMDINo. No. Go ahead. Go ahead.
TOWNSENDI will say I'll get in trouble if I go back and not say this. DCMONC, we are on social media platforms. That's the easiest way right now to get in touch with us until our website is fully developed. DCMONC.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back we'll talk about the myths surrounding partner violence and hear about local resources for survivors. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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