In December, Salah Czapary was confirmed as Director of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, a position commonly dubbed the city’s “Night Mayor.”
It’s Czapary’s job to serve as an intermediary between the District government and the owners and workers who populate the city’s once-vibrant restaurant, nightlife, and entertainment industry. He’s also charged with facilitating coordination between public safety personnel and local eateries, nightclubs, and other venues.
“My attitude towards the nightlife economy and the restaurant industry is that if I’m not asking what their needs are, what their opportunities are, what the potential issues are, then I can’t tell policymakers what those needs, opportunities, and potential issues are,” he said recently during a 45-minute conversation. “The most important thing for me is to be a willing partner and an active listener to their needs.”
A former police officer and recent candidate for the Ward 1 seat on the D.C. Council (he lost to incumbent Brianne K. Nadeau), Czapary was tapped by three-term Mayor Muriel Bowser — an ideological ally — to help her administration carry out part of the District’s “Comeback Plan” — shorthand for reviving the city’s economic development strategy, post-pandemic, in a way that grows the tax base, supports existing businesses and encourages others to open, providing increased employment and financial opportunities for D.C. residents.
Achieving those goals includes making Washington, D.C. a destination city for tourists and metro area residents alike, a place where people can not only enjoy a quality meal, grab a drink, take in a show or performance, or dance the night away to the latest hits, but where they will also feel safe doing so.
“One of my hopes is that we continue to grow our cultural and nightlife economy, and that it gives people more and more reasons to stay in D.C. and make this their permanent home,” says the youthful, ebullient 31-year-old. “What I really want to do is change the paradigm so we don’t see the restaurant and nightlife sector as just the evening economy, but our city’s second economy.”
METRO WEEKLY: Since you’ve been confirmed as Director of the Mayor’s Office on Nightlife and Culture, what have your first few weeks on the job been like and what things are you learning in your new role?
SALAH CZAPARY: Well, the first few months have involved a lot of meeting different stakeholders in the industry because nightlife and culture encompasses a lot. Restaurants, hospitality and nightclubs, live music festivals, and pretty much anything where people are gathering is included in nightlife and culture. So the initial months have been about meeting a lot of people and getting to know what their issues are, and being introduced to a whole new world of opportunities that exist in our city.
The vision for the office that I’m laying out is that we really have three buckets of work. That first bucket is constituent services. It’s helping those who are operating in the nightlife and cultural economy to work through the bureaucracy of our government, whether that involves getting grants, whether that’s help with permitting, providing guidance, and also getting additional eyes on issues and opportunities that arise.
The second piece of it is trying to cultivate new opportunities, and that can be big things or small. I think we should be as excited about having WorldPride here in 2025 as we should be creating opportunities for our marching band at Eastern High School to perform somewhere. Part of that is connecting venues with musicians and bringing opportunities here to D.C.
And the last bucket of it is really being, I suppose, a bit of a “hype” person for all the things that are happening in D.C. from our restaurants to our nightclubs, and showcasing that there’s a lot going on in our city.
People come from all over the country to D.C. because it’s the nation’s capital. People who are born and raised here are very proud of being Washingtonians, and we have a really robust economy in government and business and in finance, but we also have a really robust cultural and nightlife economy.
We’re currently on the road to recovery. In 2020 and 2021, it was really all about survival. And as we entered 2022, it was about recovery. We saw that with two certain types of grants that the city was offering for restaurants and other industries that were affected by COVID.
But 2023 gives us the opportunity to reimagine and revitalize our industries and move from being just a nighttime economy to a second economy. That’s important, because the restaurant and nightlife sector offers a lot of low-barrier, entry-level jobs. We brand ourselves as a city of second chances. Expanding the amount of jobs allows us to cater to populations who need second chances, and who need those entry-level jobs.
MW: As you talk about expanding entry-level nightlife jobs, there’s been criticism from business owners that the passage of Initiative 82 will lead to fewer employment opportunities or fewer hours for employees. Some places have even floated the idea of embracing automation, such as QR code and a food runner instead of having a server in a restaurant, or having fewer bartenders scheduled for a particular shift. What are you hearing from business owners, and how do you encourage the industry to create more employment opportunities for residents?
CZAPARY: Initiative 82 passed, so we anticipate that it’ll become the law. Of course, we know that the implementation timeline has been pushed back to May, and there may be future adjustments to that timeline, but for all intents and purposes, we know that it’s going to be implemented.
What my concern is, as I speak with those who are working in the industry — whether they supported 82 or did not support it — is that many restaurants and entertainment venues are still recovering from the effects of COVID. So it’s important for us to think of how we give this industry a soft landing. Because regardless of the merits of 82, the reality for many businesses is they’re now going to have increased operating costs.
If there are ways we can bring down operating costs in other ways, then we’re exploring those. One example of that is alcohol liability insurance. Right now we have operators who are spending more money on alcohol liability insurance than they are on their rent. And that is just an unnecessary cost. It’s due to the way our laws are written, which basically makes a venue liable if someone is over-served or drunk — even if they walk in and they’re already drunk, and they’re not even served there, the venue can be liable. So if we can make policy adjustments, adjustments to the law to bring down that cost, that would help businesses.
I spoke with one operator, and his alcohol liability insurance went up 83 percent. At that point, you might as well just make it 100 percent. We want our restaurant industry to be competitive with Maryland and Virginia.
It’s also an equity issue, too. If we’re trying to encourage more venues to open up east of the [Anacostia] River, in Wards 7 and 8, if suddenly you’re paying more money in alcohol liability insurance than you are in rent, that’s just not a feasible business model.
So we are exploring those types of policy ideas to really bring down some of the costs. And I don’t think this is a really controversial idea at all, because right now we’re spending millions of dollars in alcohol liability insurance premiums out of state, and that money could be reinvested into businesses here, into paying more staff, into better benefits. So it’s a win-win situation.
MW: Do you think the current D.C. councilmembers understand that? Have you talked to any of the people who would have to write and pass or amend those laws?
CZAPARY: I think that in this last year we’ve been the closest we’ve ever been to getting some reform on alcohol liability insurance. There’s definitely members of the council who have taken a keen interest in the issue. And part of my job is to ensure that we’re listening to operators, getting the facts, and then presenting policy ideas that can be acted upon by our legislators and our executive branch.
MW: Another issue in the city is crime. Some venues have cited rising crime as the reason for shutting down or selling off their businesses. We can debate whether that excuse is true in all instances, but if you are looking at public safety, how do you go about making the nightlife and cultural industry safe, both for the customers who you want to travel to different neighborhoods of the District and spend money, and for the employees who won’t get off work until two or three in the morning?
CZAPARY: After last summer, we saw the formation of a Nightlife Task Force, which included the MPD [Metropolitan Police Department], the fire department, DDOT [District Department of Transportation], DPW [Department of Public Works], the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, ABRA [Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration], and the Department of Buildings — pretty much anybody that had anything to do with the nightlife or restaurant industry was at the table. And like anything, its first iteration will not be the last iteration.
As we act, reflect, learn, consult, and move forward and make adjustments, I think there’s been a lot of appreciation in the industry for a whole government approach and just additional presence, not necessarily a police presence, but the presence of the Go Teams [non-law enforcement partners, including violence interrupters] and the traffic control officers. Because that does add to the feeling of security around our nightlife venues. Of course, we want people who are going out to feel safe, we want people to be able to get to where they’re going and to get home safe.
I’m excited about the prospect of 24-hour bus service along some of our most used corridors, because that also allows us to ensure that those who are working in the nightlife economy are getting home safe and have a means to get home in an affordable way, because they are closing at two or three. Those people aren’t leaving until an hour after closing, so we want to think about them as we make adjustments to our transit options.
MW: Many of these approaches you’re mentioning seem to involve multiple agencies, and there’s also a financial cost requiring investment. How do you begin to accomplish these things, and implement those ideas in practice?
CZAPARY: That’s the million-dollar question, right? We’re in a third term with the mayor, and in her inaugural speech and in her speech to all the cabinet members and the appointees, she mentioned that if we want to win in four years, we’ve got to win each year. If we want to win each year, we’ve got to win each month. And to really win each month, we’ve got to win each day. And so the way I really see it, it’s no different than any type of project management in the private sector, we’re breaking down our tasks to make sure we’re getting a little bit of movement each day.
For example, the Nightlife Task Force was a compelling concept. In the past, we had agencies talk to each other, but they didn’t necessarily have a diverse group of agencies meeting every week to discuss what’s happening and how we are responding to the security questions in our nightlife corridors. My role in that is to bring the concerns of the industry to the table, because even though there’s a wide appreciation for the full government response to the public safety situation, at the same time, there’s sometimes unintended consequences. If we close a certain road for a certain period of time, that might affect foot traffic to a business. We want to be cognizant of those types of issues.
When it comes to any of the other things, like the 24-hour bus service that has passed the council, we’ll see how it gets funded and implemented. I’m hoping that as early as the summer that can be done. When it comes to alcohol liability insurance, we’ve had the initial conversations with the groups that represent the industries, with the Nightlife Council, with the Restaurant Association, and we’ve had conversations with members and staff at the [D.C.] Council. So the next piece is really to come up with a policy initiative that meets the needs of everyone at the table, and then proposing it and seeing if it can pass Council.
When it comes to public safety, I think that’s something that we are always going to have to continue to adjust. The situation is always going to be evolving. And so the most important piece is that we continue to have a whole government response to public safety concerns in the community.
MW: What sort of timeline are you giving yourself to achieve these things? Is it a four-year plan, or are there intermediate deadlines by which you have to accomplish certain priorities? How are you going to grade your own performance?
CZAPARY: I’m a firm believer that deadlines don’t change, but perhaps our deliverables sometimes have to change when there’s multiple people at the table. When you have multiple stakeholders at the table, obviously there’s a period of consultation, reflection, trying to get people on board, and then moving forward. With the Nightlife Task Force, for example, there have definitely been some wins, with reductions in certain types of crimes in the areas that have an additional security presence.
So, to your point, how do we assess accountability? We’re starting a new year. We’re starting a new term. We’re looking for big ideas, but we have to be able to deliver on those, too. I can’t give you specific timelines right now for achieving any of those goals, but it is definitely in the back of my mind, as far as we don’t want ideas to just be ideas, they have to be executed and they can’t linger.
MW: What factors or what elements need to be in place to make D.C. a destination for nightlife? What are five or six things that need to be in place to make us a place that people want to come to and visit?
CZAPARY: Well, I think we already are a destination. We’re the nation’s capital, so that’s already a huge draw. We have venues that have been rated as some of the best, if not the best in the country. Echostage was voted the World’s #1 nightclub in 2021. So we definitely draw people, we draw big artists, we draw crowds, even for lesser-known artists.
I think one thing that we can continue to develop, especially when we’re looking towards hosting WorldPride in 2025, which is going to be a massive event, is how do we develop the muscle memory in our city agencies when we want to put on festivals and events like that?
That’s sometimes a different mode of operations than we’re used to in a nation’s capital where we deal with a lot of protests, we deal with a lot of First Amendment assemblies, we deal with a lot of those presidential developments. Sometimes we have to change our operating mindset for festivals and cultural events and whatnot, and putting on big events and festivals helps us develop that muscle memory.
Lastly, I think we have a real untapped resource in D.C. Our official music is go-go, so we also want to deliver on making sure that we not only preserve, but elevate go-go. If you go to Nashville and you ask anyone where you can see some country music, they can point you to Broadway. So I think as part of a long-term vision, we should be a destination for go-go as well.
MW: In terms of the restaurant industry, one of the fears, as cities grow, is the loss of restaurants with a unique identity, flavor or personality, which then get replaced by chain restaurants. It’s a criticism we often hear about other cities, that they lose their cultural identity when it comes to dining. How are you reaching out to small, independent restaurants and what are you hearing in terms of how the city can help them stay viable?
CZAPARY: I think we have a place for chains and we have a place for our mom-and-pop and locally-owned restaurants. And I think what’s happened is that the restaurant industry has had a lot of closure, and that has only been exacerbated by COVID. That’s why the city has been very intentional about having the Bridge Grant, which has offered relief to restaurants and other businesses affected by COVID. And we’re in the third iteration of that.
It’s important for us to be very intentional, specifically with the restaurant industry in dealing with things like alcohol liability insurance reform, because that’s going to bring down huge amounts of cost, especially on businesses where their restaurant is their sole venue. We want to be able to make sure that they can operate and continue to thrive in the city.
We have restaurants that have been around for decades and we want them to remain, and when they come upon a big anniversary, we should make sure to celebrate that.
On the policy side, we want to make sure we’re reducing unnecessary costs and we’re making regulation more streamlined and accessible. And as I mentioned before, it all comes down to being an equity issue, too. We have a ramp program called the Food Access Fund that allows for current operators in the city to open secondary locations in Wards 7 and 8. We want to ensure that those places that don’t necessarily have the same resources as a major restaurant chain are able to open up and operate.
MW: How are you approaching the expansion of entertainment or restaurant life into not only Wards 7 and 8, but 4 and 5, the farther-flung parts of the District? How are you gauging feedback from residents of those wards about what is needed?
CZAPARY: Our focus with the Food Access Fund is Wards 7 and 8 and areas that have low food access. Our city has this great structure, where local advisory neighborhood commissioners have their ears to the ground. So I’ve been active in meeting as many as I can in those wards to really understand what their issues are.
But the overwhelming concern, especially when it comes to dining out and restaurants and nightlife, is that some people who live in Wards 7 and 8 don’t always want to travel to Ward 1 or Ward 6 to go out. And I think that’s a perfectly valid feeling to have. We are granting out more than $10 million to establishments to expand their operations. With other iterations of the Food Access Fund, we have several grantees that are doing the buildouts of their establishments now. So I think in the next year, we’ll see several more places open east of the River.
MW: You mentioned earlier that ANC commissioners are often a point of local contact. But what happens if an ANC is hostile to new businesses or wants to keep an area residential? How do you balance the wants of anti-development ANC commissioners and those who want to see new restaurants and venues open up in their neighborhoods?
CZAPARY: Obviously some ANC commissioners have their own thoughts and feelings. The administration’s view clearly is that we want to not only talk about investments east of the River and in low food access areas, but also make intentional investments in those areas.
That’s why we’ve seen the Bridge Grant and the Food Access Fund be created by Mayor Bowser, and the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. So I think, to your point, we’re not always going to be on the same page with everyone, but when it comes to the execution and making sure we’re actually delivering on our promises, the administration is very clear. We want to support our local businesses and we want them to be able to expand.
Contact the office of the Director of the Mayor’s Office on Nightlife and Culture via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Salah Czapary on Twitter at @czapary and on Instagram at @czapary.
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