New Mayor Mike Johnston has a lot of city positions to fill after taking the reins of Denver government less than a month ago but he’s already voiced his interest in the possibility of adding another job to that stack. The potential new city job, should it be created, could come with a trendy nickname, too; night mayor.
To be clear, the so-called “night mayor” would not be a new elected office. It would not require someone to sit in Johnston’s chair at city hall when he goes home for the evening or to wear a cape and cowl and roam the streets to deter crime.
It’s a real position that exists — under different formal titles — in more than a dozen American cities from New Orleans to San Francisco. Just what the person filling the role does varies by municipality, but in most cases, it involves economic boosterism and problem-solving for restaurants, bars, clubs, art spaces and other businesses that do a lot of their work after dark.
The Denver Arts & Venues advisory committee as part of Johnston’s transition into office discussed the possibility of a Denver night mayor when writing its recommendation to Johnston earlier this summer. As outlined in a summary memo, the job would focus on “promoting the vibrancy, safety, and economy of Denver at night.”
The committee as a whole was lukewarm to the idea, classifying it as an optional or as-time-allows step for improving the city’s cultural functions.
“Suggestions include surveying a far greater number of stakeholders to get a better sense of what is needed by a night-time economy manager …” the memo says.
Committee co-chair Stephen Brackett is a champion for the idea and he has Johnston’s attention.
Brackett, the co-founder of Denver band the Flobots and Colorado’s current statewide music ambassador, is wearing yet another hat these days. He is the executive director of the 87 Foundation, an organization focused on doing the research and planning necessary to create a director of night-time economy position for the city. His vision for the job goes beyond someone focused on smoothing out liquor licensing issues for bars and looks more broadly at how to make Denver after 6 p.m. as inviting as possible to people across age groups and backgrounds.
“The main word is activation,” Brackett said. “The more people who participate and the more diversity among the people who participate, the safer a city is. How do we get more active?”
Denver suffered through a spike in violent crime during the pandemic. While that trend touches many neighborhoods, the city’s downtown nightlife corridor has been the location of some highly visible incidents including a shooting that left 10 people injured in the early morning hours of June 13th after people had gathered downtown to celebrate the Denver Nuggets winning the NBA championship.
On the campaign trail, Johnston spoke frequently about his vision for a city where families could dine outside on the 16th Street Mall and let their children play without concerns about their safety. The mayor’s first few weeks in office have been focused on solutions to unsheltered homelessness — itself an issue with public safety and economic development implications — but he’s interested in the idea of a night mayor, too.
“We have a unique opportunity to think proactively about positive ways to activate the city after dark in order to create joy across the city rather than fear,” Johnston said in a statement. “I’ve been encouraged by Stephen Brackett’s work here in Denver to drive forward the concept of a night mayor, and will work collaboratively with the city and community partners to invest in and prioritize a safe, vibrant nightlife economy.”
There are data and best practices out there for Denver to learn from and possibly utilize, Brackett said.
A trade group, the Nighttime Economy Culture and Policy Alliance, has published policy papers including one that outlines how cities can create their own nightlife culture plans.
Salah Czapary, the director of nightlife and culture for Washington D.C., says he knows of offices like his that are set up in a variety of ways. In his case, he is a cabinet-level appointee of Mayor Muriel Bowser confirmed by the City Council.
Czapary, the third person to hold not quite “night mayor” position in the nation’s capital, breaks his work into three primary buckets: constituent services like helping businesses with licensing and permits; economic development and public safety work; and finally the fun stuff like marketing the city to new brands and attending ribbon cuttings.
Among the economic development advocacy Czapary and his small staff are working on now is lobbying for reforms to the liability law for alcohol-serving businesses in the district to help bring down insurance costs that are much higher than those of alcohol-serving businesses in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, he said.
“The reason this job was created was the recognition there was a need for someone to support the industry and to advocate for the industry,” said Czapary, a former police officer. “One of the most immediate measures of success is do people know who you are and do they know they can call you to solve issues.”
Brackett’s background is in music, but Nora Abrams, another co-chair of Johnston’s arts and venues committee, comes from the art world. She has been the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver since 2019. The museum, located at 1485 Delgany St., has struggled to bring attendance back up to pre-pandemic levels, she said.
She sees the night mayor concept as a pathway to knocking down barriers to a resurgence of downtown businesses; someone who can focus on challenges like parking enforcement and the lack of late-night transit options and advocate for changes that benefit everyone.
“What you want is to provide as many ways for people to say yes to doing something and limit the reasons for people to say no,” Abrams said.
Of course, a hurdle to setting up something new like an office of nighttime economy will be explaining it. Even some on the transition committee struggled to understand what a “night mayor” would do.
“Framing something new, branding it and communicating it is a really tricky thing,” Abrams said .”And I think for the mayor’s team to advance this they are going to have to articulate it really clearly.”
When that effort might happen — if it happens — is very much up in the Mile High air right now.
Brackett is working to provide the tools Johnston might need if he chooses to go down that path. Born and raised in Denver, Brackett said there was a time not too long ago when nightlife in Denver wasn’t just about 25 to 35-year-olds drinking in bars. He wants to see that come back. His ultimate goal is a nighttime economy that is open to and supports kids, whether that means advocating for more well-lit athletic fields or more opportunities for the arts.
Would Brackett throw his name in the hat to be night mayor should that opportunity arise?
“I don’t care who does it, I just need it to be done. I think our city needs it,” he said.
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