Montgomery considers lifting hipness quotient with later bar hours, ‘noise areas’


Rapper and D.C. native Wale (middle) performs at the Fillmore Silver Spring in Silver Spring. Montgomery County is trying to attract more millenials by encouraging more nightlife. (Kyle Gustafson/The Washington Post)
October 21, 2013

Later closing times for bars, relaxation of noise ordinances and a “concierge” service to help new businesses maneuver the Montgomery County bureaucracy are among the proposals of a task force charged with lifting the hipness quotient of a place many millennials find bland and inhospitable.

The Nighttime Economy Task Force was appointed earlier this year by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to address what officials regarded as disquieting demographic trends. Census data show the county with the region’s highest share of seniors and lowest proportion of residents ages 20 to 34 — a rich source of disposable income, tax revenue and entrepreneurial energy.

For six months, the 21-member group has discussed tweaking public policy to make the county — specifically Silver Spring, Bethesda, Wheaton, Rockville and Germantown — competitive with places such as the District and Arlington County as destinations for the young. Panel members hope that its series of 33 proposals, finalized at a meeting Monday evening, will let a thousand food trucks, brew pubs and live music venues bloom.

“We were trying to look at things most of which can be done in the short term,” said task-force Chairman Heather Dlhopolsky, a land-use and zoning lawyer with the law firm Linowes and Blocher. “We identified things that, if implemented, could make an improvement.”

The task force did not deeply explore the costs of the various proposals. Dlhopolsky acknowledged “that the devil will be in the details” of plans to expand late-night bus service, police patrols and safe-ride programs for over-served bar patrons.

County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), a key figure in the creation of the task force, said it has accomplished its most important goal: to spark a broader conversation about the issues.

“This is just the beginning,” Riemer said. “What it’s accomplished is raising the issue and challenging the county to make changes. We’ve raised the interest and the expectations.”

Some proposals, especially those involving alcohol, would require action by the Maryland General Assembly. Dlhopolsky said the panel would seek support from the county’s delegation to extend Montgomery bar hours to match closing times in the District: 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — and Sundays before federal holidays.

The group also recommends altering a long-standing requirement that establishments maintain a 50-50 ratio of liquor to food sales — not always practical in the age of the $20 martini and designer drinks. Another measure, which might be achievable without help from Annapolis, would create a “social venue” license that would allow bars to sell alcohol without worrying about the ratio.

Longer-term, the task force recommends a closer look at the county’s Department of Liquor Control, by law the exclusive wholesaler of alcoholic beverages. It is a regulatory system that dates to the end of Prohibition and is considered by critics to be archaic and ill-suited to modern business practices.

Possibly the most controversial idea to emerge from the task force is the creation of “urban noise areas” — selected areas where higher decibel levels for outdoor arts and music performances would be permitted beyond the current 11 p.m. cutoff.

The panel’s draft report cites anecdotal evidence from the county’s Department of Environmental Protection that “residents are generally tolerant of noise generated by performances up until about midnight.”

But panel members also said such areas would have to be carefully carved out and include requirements that prospective new residents be warned before moving in about the possibility of elevated noise.

“The demographics in Montgomery County and the entire region are changing. We need to be attuned to that but also be mindful of residents already living here,” said Silver Spring community activist Evan Glass, a task force member.

Music as a lure to millennials was very much on the mind of panel members. There is a proposal to offer tax credits to establishments that offer quality live music. “There are few places to hear good music, the quality of entertainment is uneven and audiences are sparse,” the draft report notes.

Another provision calls for a busker program to encourage street performers, possibly even with small stipends.

The task force said that to attract millennials, the county must be more accessible to businesses that serve or employ them. That means new mechanisms to cut through what is widely viewed as a complex and time-consuming process for permits and other regulatory clearances.

“Montgomery County is viewed as a difficult place to do business, which can be a deterrent to attracting nighttime amenities,” the draft report said.

The group recommends the creation of “concierges” who would proactively reach out to owners of restaurants and other nighttime businesses to smooth their way into the county.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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