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To this story in CitizenCast

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The Night Mayor Will Take Your Call Now

Eighteen months after Philly’s first Nighttime Economy Director took up his post, the industry that generates $2.5 billion in wages is still waiting for help. Will Cherelle Parker hear their pleas?

The Night Mayor Will Take Your Call Now

Eighteen months after Philly’s first Nighttime Economy Director took up his post, the industry that generates $2.5 billion in wages is still waiting for help. Will Cherelle Parker hear their pleas?

Artem Ustayev was officially stressing. For five years he had been working to open his nightclub, Midnight & The Wicked, a 1920s-themed “Great Gatsby” lounge at 15th and Sansom. With a few weeks to go until the grand opening, Ustayev was suddenly staring down a $10,000 fee from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). And it’s not like you can forgo the Gin Rickeys in a Gatsby lounge.

Ustayev’s woes stemmed from the pandemic, which painfully stretched his construction plans and left his liquor license in a frozen “safekeeping” status set to expire, most unfortunately, just days before receiving his health department license.

“I called the PLCB and said, ‘Hey, can I get a little bit of an extension, like maybe a week or two?’” Ustayev explains. “The gentleman on the phone told me, ‘We can extend it, but you have to pay the $10,000 fee for a full year extension.’ Even if you use one day out of that year and then pull it out of safekeeping, you’re still paying the 10 grand.”

Philadelphia’s nighttime economy includes more than 4,000 bars, restaurants and entertainment and sports venues, which employ some 60,000 people and pay more than $2.5 billion in wages.

Government red tape at its finest.

“It was a huge hit to me,” Ustayev says, “It was going to be financially devastating.”

If it had been 2019, when Ustayev first started construction, he would have had no choice but to shell out that 10 large. Four years later, though, he was able to make a call to a mutual friend and arrange a meeting with Raheem Manning, aka Philly’s night mayor.

With a little “finessing” from Manning, the PLCB allowed Midnight & The Wicked to use a … technicality. If Ustayev began the process of pulling his license out of safekeeping, he would, strictly speaking, still be in “good faith” with the Board. This would allow him to finish up his health department licensing before a PLCB inspector showed up.

A little grease on the wheels actually made a difference here. “I know this wouldn’t have happened had Raheem not intervened and explained to them my scenario,” Ustayev says.

This is exactly what a night mayor (or, officially, the Nighttime Economy Director) should be doing: acting as liaison between a government encased in red tape and nighttime business owners who have more on their minds than the subtle back alleys of license navigation.

Ustayev has seen our night mayor at his most effective — using connections, slashing tape, saving grateful business owners from licensing missteps and exorbitant fees. But I know about Ustayev’s experience only because I tracked him down. If you were to search out just our night mayor’s accomplishments over the last year and a half, you might be left scratching your head as to what Manning has actually been doing.

How Philly got its ‘night mayor’

Philadelphia’s nighttime economy includes more than 4,000 bars, restaurants and entertainment and sports venues, which employ some 60,000 people and pay more than $2.5 billion in wages. Nightlife is a vital part of our economy, not to mention our culture and reputation as a place people want to be and hang out.

That’s why, back in 2016, The Citizen ran an Ideas We Should Steal article pushing for the adoption of a European-style night mayor. “We should be helping the nighttime music scene thrive,” wrote Rana Fayez, “not putting up roadblocks.”

In Amsterdam, where this night mayor position first started (yes, I hear it), Mirik Milan, a 35-year-old former club promoter, was elected to advocate for late-night businesses, and he had a marked effect on everything from extended hours of operation to increased lighting to noise reduction, essentially turning Amsterdam into a “24-hour city.”

The idea spread throughout the continent and made its way to our shores. Today, Philadelphia is one of 16 major U.S. cities, along with dozens of European cities, that employs some form of a night mayor position.

“To know that [the position] is there gives me comfort. To know that I could have help if I needed it, is something we could all use.” — Brendan Olkous, co-owner, Saint Lazarus Bar

“Having someone in government who can think about those citizens and those businesses operating at night,” Manning says, “really is a transformative thing that is happening all around the world.”

No one would say Manning isn’t passionate about Philly’s nightlife. Before being hired by the city’s Commerce Department, Manning was a successful entrepreneur, globetrotter and owner of the travel and events company, Weekender Experiences. He personally advocated for the creation of a Director of Nighttime Economy.

But when the Commerce Department announced Manning’s position in July of 2022, it did so with a healthy serving of word salad:

Manning will lead public engagement efforts to develop a strategic governance plan and advocate for policies that support the City’s attraction and retention of companies within its night-time economy.

This may have been the first red flag. Those words can fit together, but what exactly was Manning supposed to do? And how would he be doing it? He is, after all, a director with no office to direct. Or dedicated staff. Or budget. Our nighttime economy (NTE) office is more of a “strategic effort” within the Office of Business Development and Workforce Solutions.

Raheem Manning, a Black man wearing a grey suit jacket and white button-down shirt has his hands in his pockets and smiles. He's Philly's "Night Mayor."
Raheem Manning, Philly’s “night mayor.”

How the night mayor has spent his days

The Commerce Department recently released their “Nighttime Economy Year One Report”.

The success of ongoing nighttime improvements for Philadelphia relies on collaboration among government, businesses, creatives, and community stakeholders, working together to advance a vibrant nighttime economy that aligns with the needs and aspirations of Philadelphians.

All the words, zero the calories. After wading through the Year One Report, you do get to the real meat of the last 18 months. Ultimately, the night mayor conducted a listening tour.

I don’t want to diminish this. Manning stepped into the position and put boots to the pavement. He personally interacted with more than 180 nighttime establishments. The business owners I interviewed, to a person, expressed gratitude that someone from municipal government was taking time to listen to them. Opening any business in Philly, but especially a late-hours business, is risky, fraught and unnecessarily confusing. Having someone to reach out to matters.

“To know that [the position] is there gives me comfort,” says Brendan Olkous, who co-owns Saint Lazarus Bar in Northern Liberties with his wife, Janay Green. “To know that I could have help if I needed it, is something we could all use.”

The listening part of the listening tour was certainly a success. The results — from a data collection standpoint — are a little more dubious. Under “Nighttime Economy Listening Tour Findings” in the Year One Report, we find five things business owners want to see improved:

    • Access to support
    • Ease of doing business
    • Transportation
    • Trash
    • Public safety

I guarantee you didn’t need to do a listening tour to form that list. Ask any SEPTA rider on your commute home and they could easily rattle those off before the next stop. But also: Night mayors can’t do most of those things. Especially in Philly.

The second major accomplishment was the formation of a Nighttime Economy Advisory Council consisting of “25 members, including City officials, business owners, residents and representatives from local organizations.”

Not a bad idea to form advisory councils — they certainly help to advise things. But that does seem to be the extent of the progress over the last 18 months, save a proposed impact study that would cost around a quarter million dollars and 9 months to complete. Insert eye roll.

A listening tour, a new council and an expensive impact study. Doesn’t this seem more like talking around the issues facing our city than actually getting stuff done?

Manning is credited as a co-author on Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’ “Define The Night” bill that just passed into law. This bill helps update the definition of “nightclub,” so private assemblies like block parties don’t have to jump through licensing hoops, and restaurants can hire DJs and other performers without being hit by a bunch of regulations. This will certainly help some folks, though it’s unclear how much it will impact the actual movers and shakers of the nighttime economy.

“This [position] is new,” Manning says. “Most people don’t know what I do, or what this role is, or why they need an advocate within city government. I think that’s [my] biggest challenge.”

“Give him time.”

I asked several business owners if any of them had heard from the Nighttime Economy Director since the listening tour. Or if they had any reason to contact Manning again. Each said no. All of them did offer a version of: It’s only been a year and a half. It’s a new position. We have to give him time.

Maybe, but I’m increasingly unsure that more time will make much of a difference. This summer, the Inquirer ran an article called “Philly nightlife takes a hit as noise complaints force relocations, unexpected shutdowns” that chronicled the hardships of several nightclubs and music venues in town. As Earl Hopkins reported:

Noise complaints, [DJ Dave] Pianka said, have crippled many of Philly’s outdoor music experiences through the last few years. Fellow DJs and party promoters have been forced to relocate, or even cancel entire events, due to the stockpile of protests brought on by disgruntled residents and nearby establishments.

These complaints often come from neighborhoods with nightclubs and music venues, and newly constructed residential buildings. As, Pianka said, more people and businesses move into these neighborhoods, there is a growing divide between partygoers and residents looking for a quiet place to lay their head.

Elsewhere in the piece Pianka sums up the frustration of his peers: “So many other cities around the world support and celebrate nightlife and understand its value. Philadelphia needs to do the same … We need people who understand culture to be in these rooms where they’re making these decisions.”

Which sounds like a better job description for night mayor than Commerce’s garbled announcement from 2022.

“If you want things done right, you need people and money”

Where was Manning when all this was happening? “We need to be realistic,” says Evon Burton, co-chair of Manning’s Advisory Council. “I think it’s very unkind to think that one person can do all of this work.”

Ultimately, the success of Philly’s night mayor may depend on what the city’s 24-hour mayor, Cherelle Parker, decides is a priority. Burton and his co-chair Shaleem Perez were quoted in the Year One Report saying: “We need to continue to push for a full Office of Nighttime Economy. If the City of Philadelphia wants to compete with other cities, [we must] expand the work we are doing by investing in the growth of the nighttime economy with all the support and services that a city of this size needs.”

Or as Burton said to me: “If you want things done right, you need people and money.”

The Commerce Department did inform me that a program manager has recently been hired to help “oversee the development and implementation of nighttime economy initiatives,” so maybe that will get the needle moving. Or maybe one extra person from Business Development doesn’t qualify as enough “people and money” to really make a difference.

Is the night mayor another example of a good idea bogged down in the lugubriousness of the city? Is this a case of red tape overcoming the hand sent to cut it? Is Manning wielding elementary school safety scissors? After all, nightlife-related issues keep on keepin’ on: Just last week, the Inquirer’s Ximeña Conde wrote about the battle between Fairmount residents and the Water Works, a popular and often loud host of many a late-night wedding.

It’s a complicated issue, but Artem Ustayev would certainly come to the night mayor’s defense. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “I’ve never had anyone that I could talk to in the city like that. I can literally just pick up the phone and call him.”

That’s certainly a start. I just hope that, once again, we don’t let a transformative idea slip by.


Photo by A. Ricketts for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®

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