Sunday, June 23, 2024

What can Ottawa’s ‘night mayor’ look forward to? Washington, D.C.’s nightlife director weighs in

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The City of Ottawa is in the process of seeking out a nightlife commissioner to help revitalize and develop the city’s nighttime economy.

The position calls for someone to serve as “an ambassador and facilitator of the city’s nightlife economy” who will lead the implementation of the city’s Nightlife Economy Action Plan, which was approved last year. The job comes with a six-figure salary and is expected to have a $160,000 budget in 2024.

Candidates are asked to have completed a four-year bachelor degree in either Hospitality, Tourism, Business Administration, Commerce, Economics, Recreology, Public/Business Administration, Recreation, Leisure Studies and or related fields, and five years’ experience in the public or not-for-profit sector, economic development, urban planning, arts and culture or community organizations that intersect with the nightlife economy.

The job posting closes on March 1.

This is something new for Ottawa, but in the U.S. capital, the position has existed for several years.

Newstalk 580 CFRA’s “CFRA Live with Andrew Pinsent” chatted with Washington, D.C.’s Salah Czapary, director of the mayor’s office of nightlife and culture, about what the job entails, how it was created, and about the similarities Ottawa and D.C. share.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Andrew Pinsent: You’re the third person to take this role. Maybe just back up a little bit as we’re looking at this here in Ottawa. How did this start in D.C.?

Salah Czapary: The office was passed by an act by the city council in 2018, establishing the office as part of the executive branch of the government. It really followed the trend of cities across the world that were hiring nightlife directors, night czars, night mayors, with the purpose and understanding that you have this industry that operates mainly at times when the government is not open — restaurants, nightclubs, festivals, live music venues — that need an advocate and liaison within government. That’s really what drove the council to move the law.

AP: How have the last few years gone? As you mention, this is stuff that happens when government is normally closed. How have you been able to make those relationships in the business community?

SC: I think when the office started, people were like, ‘What is this?” It sounds like something that is not part of government, but very quickly after the establishment of the office, COVID hit and that was trial by fire for the office. Suddenly, we had all these restaurants that were trying to navigate closures and trying to navigate reopening in a safe way. We needed to put together grants, and so the nightlife office here in D.C. led the charge towards getting temporary ‘streatery’ permits and temporary sidewalk permits, eventually getting the winterization grants for ‘streateries’ and so the value was very clearly evident, not only within government, but also externally to our stakeholders.

Even though the health emergency is over, we’re still in this mode where we’re making sure that the industries are adjusting to this post-COVID world.

AP: What challenges have you had in D.C. to reinvigorate the nightlife economy?

SC: Everything post-COVID is really defined by that. We have a downtown that has still not returned to its economic vitality, pre-COVID, but at the same time we see other parts of the city that are exceeding their economic vitality because, for example, in some of our neighbourhoods, there is now a lunch rush because about 50 per cent of our workforce is working from home. That creates other issues that industries now need an advocate for.

One of the common constituent concerns I get from either a resident or a business is noise and trash. We’ve worked outside the regulatory environment to try to solve those issues. If you suddenly have a lunch rush in a quarter that’s never had it, suddenly there is a lot more trash and we have to solve those issues.

The way we best assist our sister agencies in government is trying to be creative in some of our thinking and solving issues outside of regulations.

AP: How big is that creativity piece? It seems like you’re trying to cater to the nightlife crowd while keeping things happy with the city. How difficult is it to balance all of those needs?

SC: I think that it’s a paradigm shift. Nightlife has been historically seen as a liability and by having an advocate within government, we can shift it to being seen as an asset to the city. The reality is, when people are out at night and drinking, there are going to be issues, but we can mitigate those issues through some creative thinking.

For example, if we see a street we need to close because there are a lot of people coming out of the clubs at the same time, we can close that, but we can go a step further and say, ‘How can we change the parking in the area? Can we work with the rideshare companies to make sure we have designated drop-off zones and pickup zones?’ In that way, we’re an assistant to the police department, which is only really thinking about the safety concerns about shutting down the street, while we can think a little bit longer-term about who else do we need to get involved to make sure this is a more viable area.

AC: It does seem like a bit of a broad challenge. You’re looking at things like sidewalks and parking, but also more broadly at bringing economic viability to the downtown. Is there a focus on creative arts, music, things like that?

SC: Our office is nightlife and culture, and I like to say culture is any time two or more people meet, so everyone is part of our constituency. Our main stakeholders are the bars, the restaurants, the live music venues, the festivals, the sporting arenas, arts and entertainment — and there are trade associations that represents those different groups that we work with very closely — but our work is really divided into three buckets.

The last bucket is promoting the city and encouraging new restaurants, new ideas, new culture, and new entertainment to enter our market. To be able to do that effectively and promote the city, we have to do the first two pieces.

One is constituent services, which could be dealing with those noise complaints and trash issues and solving those. It could be that your restaurant is trying to expand and you’re having issues getting permits and you’re not getting a response, so then we’re your advocate to help you get a response and expedite that process.

The second piece is policy. Policy can look like making sure we craft grants from the City that are inclusive of the nightlife economy and aren’t cutting out a sector, for example, or, as legislation is being looked at, advising council and the mayor about how this can increase opportunity for people, maybe by bringing costs down in certain ways.

It’s a lot of work. Nightlife touches every constituency. Often, mayors’ offices have demographic-specific groups like Latino affairs or LGBTQ affairs, but no matter what demographic you fall into, I’m pretty sure you enjoy a good meal out, or to go out one night, and so everyone, really, is our constituent.

AP: It really sounds like you have to be a master of everything to know how all the pieces work. Salah, thank you for joining us. I really appreciate it.

SC: Of course, and best of luck to the next nightlife commissioner in Ottawa. 

–With files from CTV News Ottawa’s Josh Pringle.

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