My Two Cents: MoCo Nightlife Q and A, Part One

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.

Joseph HawkinsLet’s get this Bethesda party started!

As I noted in my post last week, a Montgomery County task force wants to bring more nightlife entertainment to the County. Frequently, Bethesda is mentioned as a destination for some of the new entertainment. And the task force seems especially focused on 20-somethings (Generation Xers) as its target demographic. Think about it this way: Instead of 20-somethings running off to DC’s Adams Morgan or U Street to drink and party they’ll select Bethesda, Silver Spring or Wheaton as their drinking holes and party spots.

But before Bethesda becomes Adams Morgan north, Montgomery County must transform its existing alcohol rules and regulations. And so, I turned to my 20-something friend Bill DeBaun for advice (his comments reflect his personal options only and not those of any other individuals, groups, or organizations).

Q: Bill, tell me why you’re in such a great position to speak on the subject of nighttime entertainment options for Montgomery County?

A: I recently received my Master of Public Policy degree from the George Washington University. As a part of my coursework there, I completed a capstone with four other students where we worked with the Montgomery County Office of the County Executive as a client and made recommendations (Ed. note: See PDF below) about how to make the county more attractive to young professionals. Our work compared policies among Montgomery, Arlington, and Fairfax counties and the District of Columbia in the following policy areas: housing, walkability, housing, “green” community and enterprise, and nightlife economy. One of my primary focuses was the nightlife economy analysis. In addition, I am also the co-editor of DCBeer.com, a local blog providing info on craft beer events, news, and views.

[PDF: Attracting Young Professionals to Montgomery County – Presentation]

Q:  Based on your research, what one thing can Montgomery County do short-term (within the next year) to gain a larger share of the 20-something after-hours entertainment dollars?  And why is this one thing so important?

A: Our research shows that Montgomery County’s nightlife economy has at least three disadvantages compared to DC and Arlington County.

First, there are comparatively higher administrative costs to bars and restaurants; primarily we’re talking about alcohol licenses and application fees. Second, because of the control district model of alcohol distribution (where the county acts as the distributor rather than private entities), there are relatively fewer alcohol products available for purchase and products often take longer to process through the system and get to a venue’s door. Third, there are some regulatory obstacles to day-to-day operations (e.g., minimum seating requirements, food-to-alcohol ratio minimums, and requirements on having the kitchen open when alcohol is being served).

What I would do (and honestly, I don’t know if Montgomery County has or hasn’t already done this) is reach out to local business owners, not just in Montgomery County but also in DC and northern Virginia, and see what their take is on doing business in the county in terms of nightlife economy and alcohol. If there are policies that are more onerous than others, it is always good to hear what those are so you can work on improving them. Beyond just “dialogue,” which a lot of people I’m sure are rolling their eyes about, here’s something concrete that can be done short-term.

I come at things from a beer angle, so for example, I know that in DC if you need a keg, your distributor gets it to you in a day or two, certainly within the week. With Montgomery County, I’ve heard reports of it taking multiple weeks to get product if it is a “special order.” That makes it really hard to develop, for example, strong beer programs that are really attractive right now both in the area and around the country.

Q:  Based on your research, what one thing can Montgomery County do long-term (within the next 3-6 years) to gain a larger share of the 20-something after-hours entertainment dollars?

A:  Look at the areas that are doing well with 20-somethings after hours: H Street, Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, 14th Street, Ballston, Clarendon.

These areas all have a couple of characteristics: lots of options (density) with a number of different “types” of venues (nice sit-down spots, bars, tapas places, clubs, music venues, etc.) that are walkable. There are places to develop that kind of “entertainment zone,” in Montgomery County (Bethesda, Silver Spring), but I think we need more information on what motivates businesses. We know where millennials want to live: places close to work with a lot of amenities they can walk to.

Our research didn’t cover what makes businesses tick though, which is why my short-term recommendation is what it is. These entertainment zones don’t happen overnight. you need a few pioneering businesses to be draws and anchor a neighborhood and then other people will move in after them. If you look at all of the neighborhoods I mentioned above, at least in DC, each one of them had a nightlife anchor or two or three. How do you get those anchors? You establish good business environments for them so they want to stay and are able to stay in business with reasonable regulations, good distribution services, etc.

The other long-term actions are that there seems to be a perception problem with Montgomery County and millennials (“it’s far,” “the options are bad,” “it’s the ‘burbs”). That’s something hopefully the Nighttime Economy Task Force is going to remedy.

Finally, the county needs to keep current residents on-board. I’d wager that many residents of Montgomery County are living there because they didn’t want to live near an Adams Morgan. How the county’s policymakers balance current residents’ desires with prospective residents’ is going to be a delicate dance indeed.

Q:  You worked in Rockville and commuted from DC.  Did you ever consider living in Montgomery County (perhaps Rockville)?  If not, why not?

A:  I’ve considered it at various points. I really like what living in downtown DC affords me. Take any of the following reasons for why I don’t live in DC: my fiancée and I can walk to work, walk to nearly all of my favorite bars and restaurants (as a beer blogger, that’s important), run down to the Mall, etc. My friends all live here. I don’t need to own a car.

Is my rent high? Yep. But living in Bethesda or Silver Spring are really the only areas in Montgomery County that would keep me near DC with anything resembling my current lifestyle, and I don’t see a huge rent savings living there over DC. Plus, I’ve had to rely on the Red Line in the past, I have absolutely no desire to do that again. There just isn’t a critical mass of good reasons for me to move outside of the District at this point.

Check back for Part 2 of the interview next Wednesday

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail.  He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.


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