by Josh Feit
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget eliminated a position that the city’s cultural community believes is essential, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis is strangling city nightlife: The Nightlife Business Advocate, also known as the Night Mayor. Fortunately, city council member Andrew Lewis took quick action to restore the position last month, getting four more council members—a majority—to sign on as cosponsors to his budget amendment.
The $155,000 save is on track to be part of next week’s budget deal. I point out Lewis’ pivotal role because he’s the youngest council member (he just turned 31 this week), and still values nightlife as an attribute of city life. “It’s always bothered me that nightlife is seen as something that needs to be managed,” Lewis told me. “I think it’s something that needs to be cultivated.”
That’s essentially what the position, a formal liaison between nightlife businesses and city regulators, was created to do: Nightlife Advocate Scott Plusquellec helps music venues navigate the city’s complex licensing and permitting bureaucracy as well as helping with state regulators such as the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. (Plusquellec was a legislative staffer in Olympia before coming to work at the city.)
The position was created in 2015 and housed in the Office of Economic Development’s Office of Film + Music under the office’s then-director Kate Becker. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene (and its storied battles against things like the Teen Dance Ordinance), Becker was both a founding member of all-ages venue the Vera Project and the Seattle Music Commission. When Becker left in early 2019 to take a job with King County Executive Dow Constantine as the County’s first Creative Economy Strategist, Plusquellec lost his high-level ally.
Becker was never replaced. After Becker left, Plusquellec reportedly had to write up a memo explaining his position to Mayor Durkan’s new OED director Bobby Lee, who started heading up the department in the summer of 2019. Judging from the mayor’s proposed cut, the new regime was not convinced.
The mayor’s office had a slapdash backup plan for helping the music community thrive without a dedicated advocate. While a November 2 letter from the mayor generically supported restoring positions that were slated for cuts, the approach Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland described to PubliCola sounded piecemeal and improvisational. “The department could also mitigate the impacts of losing this position by transferring responsibilities to members of the small business development team,” Nyland said. That eight-person team has a smorgasbord of responsibilities, from helping small businesses with construction mitigation, to managing business grants, to helping small businesses deal with day to day dramas like nearby homeless encampments. The team includes one dedicated advocate for the restaurant industry.
At a time when businesses like nightclubs, that rely on large, in-person gatherings, are struggling to stay afloat, this 1970s stereo wiring approach to promoting the struggling nightlife industry didn’t make sense to Lewis. “Clubs were the first to close and will be the last to reopen” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis said. He believes that if Seattle’s club scene is going to succeed, they need a full-time, dedicated advocate. “I don’t want someone who’s also worrying about farmers’ markets and neighborhood festival permits” also responsible for helping out club and bar owners, he said.
Good on Lewis and the council, but now that they’re woke about the Night Mayor, let’s hope they don’t simply save Seattle’s clubs from disaster, and instead start pushing to expand the definition of “nightlife” itself.
The nighttime economy isn’t just about music. As we’ve come to realize with most issues, the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Just as we view transportation, for example, as entwined with housing, land use, health, and the environment, we need to place the nighttime economy in a more comprehensive context.
If we want Seattle to work after 9pm, we need city planners to view transit, social services, access to groceries and pharmacies, night school, parks, and, yes, entertainment, as all part of the path to success for the city’s nighttime ecosystem.
People’s lives and responsibilities do not stop at sunset. In fact, creating more friendly evening hours will extend opportunity to a broader population. If low-wage daytime workers could access things that are traditionally closed during their off hours—government services, administrative offices, frequent transit, schools, courts, social services, the city could greatly diminish barriers to equity. Shoring up late-night services, such as transit, would also be a boon for night shift workers.
This comprehensive approach will also work for clubs. Small example: How about subsidizing transit fares for people who get stamped at the door at any one of Seattle’s 54 music venues on Friday and Saturday nights?
The Night Mayor shouldn’t only be a liaison between nightclub entrepreneurs and the city, it should be a liaison between city planners and the night, helping the city view everything from its parks programs, transit projects, and jobs initiatives through a nighttime lens.