Boosting Montgomery County Nightlife Remains a Difficult Task Two Years After Nighttime Economy Task Force Issues Recommendations

Task force was successful in spurring changes to alcohol laws, but county’s suburban make-up still looms large when it comes to increasing nightlife activity


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Villain and Saint, a music venue and restaurant in Bethesda, opened earlier this year in an area not known for late-night activity

Via Villain and Saint/Facebook

In the two years since a county government-created task force made 32 recommendations for improving local nightlife, the Robert Wiedmaier Restaurant Group has opened a live music venue and a restaurant with a rooftop bar in downtown Bethesda.

Despite changes to state alcohol laws spurred by the task force’s work, including moving back closing time at county restaurants to 3 a.m. on weekends, Robert Wiedmaier Restaurant Group Chief Operating Officer Frank Shull said he hasn’t noticed much change in the nightlife scene.

“It’s still Bethesda. It’s still a lot of families. It’s not a party town,” Shull said. “I don’t know a lot of bars right now in Bethesda that are actually staying open until 3 a.m.”

Shull’s experience speaks to the larger challenge the county faces in boosting nightlife in what is still a mostly suburban jurisdiction on the edge of more urban Washington, D.C., and near Arlington, two places that boast a higher number of younger residents, more easily accessible transit options and a reputation for nightlife.

“As a suburban community, we have certain disadvantages as compared to our urban neighbors,” said Lily Qi, a special assistant to County Executive Ike Leggett, who conceived of the Nighttime Economy Task Force.

The task force, which garnered considerable attention because of its quest to make traditionally staid Montgomery County more “hip,” issued its final report two years ago Wednesday. The recommendations included alcohol law changes, more flexible noise ordinances for the county’s downtown areas, implementing a program for street performers and opening up county parks—now closed after dark—for nighttime events.

Qi said the county has made some of the recommended changes, is working on others and that some—such as the idea of increasing the number of taxi stands—have effectively been made irrelevant by the surge in popularity of new technologies such as the app-based car service Uber.

“It’s our overall goal to make our suburban community more interesting and more attractive by creating a sense of place,” Qi said. “When you say, ‘Montgomery County,’ people usually draw a blank. Many people have heard of Bethesda or heard of Silver Spring and the more such places we have, places people can associate a name with, the more competitive we become.”

Qi emphasized that the task force’s mission wasn’t solely to figure out how to attract millennials, but how to make areas such as Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville and Wheaton more attractive after the workday for everybody.

Still, attracting a larger share of younger residents, especially those who may not yet have children who require seats in the county’s public school system, was and continues to be a major priority.

A report earlier this year found 40 percent of Arlington residents were millennials, the highest percentage of residents born between 1977 and 1992 of any city in the U.S. Arlington was followed closely by Washington, D.C., where 35 percent of residents were millennials and Alexandria, where 34 percent of residents were millennials.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Montgomery County had about 186,000 residents between the ages of 20 and 34, about 19 percent of the county’s population.

“The art of attracting young professionals is not just ‘attracting,’ but also bringing back our kids who grew up in Montgomery County,” Qi said, “so they can start building their lives and starting their businesses here without having to wait until they have school-aged children.”

Heather Dlhopolsky, a Bethesda-based land-use attorney who chaired the task force, said the group, made up of county officials, business owners and residents, succeeded in pushing many of the alcohol law changes restaurant owners thought were necessary to compete with Washington, D.C., establishments for customers.

The county delegation to the state legislature successfully pushed back closing times one hour, to 3 a.m. on the weekend and 2 a.m. on weeknights. Lawmakers did away with a burdensome requirement that all restaurants make at least as much money on food sales as on alcohol sales.

Dhlopolsky said the task force also created the “groundswell” for other piecemeal changes that resulted in things such as special liquor licenses for hair salons and fewer restrictions for craft beer and wine producers.

That last set of changes, in particular, has spurred a flurry of new breweries in the county and cleared the way for an urban winery in Silver Spring appropriately named The Urban Winery.

With Denizens Brewing Co. also situated in Silver Spring, Dhlopolsky said it’s the Silver Spring Urban District that’s shown the most improvement when it comes to new nightlife options.

“You’re seeing a lot of really cool, different funky thinks happening with some of the liquor law changes,” Dhlopolsky said. “It would’ve been hard for some of those businesses to open without those changes.”

Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the county’s Silver Spring Regional Center, partnered with a local arts nonprofit to find a keyboardist, guitarists and other street performers and place them at strategic points throughout the downtown area in an attempt to activate those spots.

“What’s happened is the affirmation of downtown Silver Spring as a place and fomenting that sense of place,” Rodriguez said.

Nighttime noise complaints, one of the negative consequences of an improved nightlife scene considered by the task force, don’t appear to have increased in the two years since the task force made its recommendations or in the year and a half since closing time was moved back one hour.

There have been four restaurants or outdoor festivals that were the subject of noise complaints in downtown Silver Spring this year and five in downtown Bethesda. There were four in downtown Silver Spring in 2014 and three in downtown Bethesda in 2014.

Most of the cases involve more than one complainant. A case involving the Society Lounge, which has a rooftop lounge, on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring that’s still open has 10 complainants.

Qi said the county won’t pursue the idea of higher noise maximums for downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring because county regulators from the Department of Environmental Protection and officials who manage urban districts were concerned it would be difficult to enforce. It is possible the county will look into specific noise rules for each specific urban area.

Shull, a fourth-generation Washingtonian, said that steps such as loosening the noise ordinance wouldn’t make much of a difference right now in attracting more people to downtown Bethesda at night.

Villain & Saint, the music venue from the Robert Wiedemaier Restaurant Group that opened earlier this year, typically clears out at 12:30 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, he said.

On Halloween night, the venue is hosting four Grateful Dead cover bands in a show that will last until 2 a.m. and include early morning breakfast service.

“It’ll be interesting to see how many people are still standing at 2 o’clock,” Shull said. “The 20-somethings that don’t have kids or who are single, a lot of them go out downtown. With how popular H Street is right now, how popular U Street is right now, I don’t think there’s a big group that says, ‘Let’s go to Bethesda.’ ”

Dhlopolsky said creating more affordable housing for young people, something the task force didn’t wade into, is one of the larger issues that must be solved if Montgomery County hopes to catch up to neighboring jurisdictions when it comes to younger residents.

She also mentioned the county’s unique control system for distributing alcohol, a topic that could soon be at the forefront of the local legislative agenda in Annapolis, as another area that needs further exploration.

“I think things are getting a little bit better,” Dhlopolsky said. “I don’t know that Montgomery County is ever going to be the epitome of nightlife. But that was never really what the intent was. It was to take what we have, and improve on it. I do think there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

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