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Leggett: Solving Montgomery’s Nightlife Woes Won’t Be Easy

By Aaron Kraut

Tuesday - 5/21/2013, 10:15am  ET

A Montgomery County Police officer keeps watch near a handful of Bethesda barsMontgomery County’s Nighttime Economy Task Force has six months to come up with solutions to problems that could require seismic changes in the county’s suburban culture to fix.

County Executive Isiah Leggett said there are many complex issues at play when he addressed the 20-plus member group during its first ever meeting on Monday in Silver Spring.

Leggett, who assembled the Task Force to deliver recommendations for improving the county’s nightlife, offered a sobering political reality he said must be considered when talking looser alcohol laws, later bar closing times or higher density development around Metro stations.

“Most people in this county, when you ask them the question about, ‘Should we improve the nighttime economy,’ intellectually, on-paper they’ll probably say, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea,’” Leggett said. “But their view of what that means is we can generate the economic benefits of that all in isolation, that it’s totally removed from their lives. People say, ‘I like the benefits of that, but I don’t want to deal with the practical effects of that.’”

In suburban Montgomery, long associated with wealthy single-family home neighborhoods, a prized school system and an older population, that’s a tough line to cross. But county leaders, seeing young tax-paying professionals flock to the District and Arlington, want in on the action.

“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, well now we’re going to have 23-year-olds driving down the streets of Bethesda at 70 miles an hour and screaming out their windows and kicking over trash cans,’” Task Force Chair and Bethesda land use attorney Heather Dlholopolsky told the group. “That’s not what it means. The key thing to remember is that nighttime economy is so many things and don’t be too exclusive in terms of the things that you’re looking for.”

That means activities for empty-nesters, middle-aged residents and the young urban professionals Leggett said he’s tired of seeing get away.

“We pay a huge investment in our school system, one of the best in the entire country. Many of them go off to college and once they’ve completed college and they are now thinking about settling down, they’re more likely to go to Adams Morgan, other locations in the District, Arlington or, god forbid, Fairfax,” Leggett said. “They’ve taken that investment that we made, that education that we started and they are utilizing that in some other location. We’re not going to capture 100 percent of the people, but there’s a reason as to why they’re not thinking of us as a first choice.”

The Task Force has seven specific topic areas, based on conceptual goals from the California-based Responsible Hospitality Institute: arts and entertainment, business engagement, public use and amenities, quality of life, transportation, public safety and venue operations and safety.

The RHI has worked with the county’s Department of Liquor Control and will put on a two-day conference on the subject in June in Silver Spring that will include insight from Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier.

Much of Monday’s discussion revolved around a presentation from Kathie Durbin, the chief of Licensure, Regulation & Education for the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control.

Durbin also tended bar for 12 years at Bethesda’s Durty Nelly’s, the popular bar on Montgomery Lane that preceded Tommy Joe’s. Durbin explained the county’s existing alcohol regulations, expected to be a focus of any recommendations from the Task Force.

She suggested the creation of some sort of nighttime venue license that would allow restaurants and bars more freedom to serve alcohol, though she downplayed the perceived negative effect the county’s 50-50 food-to-alcohol ratio has on its nightlife scene.

“We’ve never taken away a [liquor] license because of the ratio,” Durbin said. “Usually, we don’t even check a business unless there’s a business where there’s really a lot of bad things happening. It hasn’t been a big issue but I can see how it’s a good conversation to have now, because of the prices of drinks and the prices of food.

“I don’t think we were ready for it five years ago,” Durbin said. “But I think we’re ready for it now because of some of the beautiful downtown centers we’ve created.”

The Task Force will meet on the third Monday of every month. Next month’s meeting, on June 17, will be at the Bethesda Library (7400 Arlington Rd.). Meetings are open to the public and, for at least the next few months will include some sort of briefing on a related area of county government or nighttime economics.