It’s no secret that downtown Norfolk’s nightlife has been in a weird place.
First, the pandemic ground all activity to a halt. The year after bars opened up at full steam produced a number of headline-grabbing violent crime incidents. City leaders ramped up enforcement and subsequently shut down a number of establishments. The DJ-centric arts community moved events and programming to other venues, which was starkly clear at SITW, where surrounding establishments hosted dozens of events that wouldn’t have been possible in Downtown Norfolk.
The City government and the broader community seem to be on one page about one thing: the nightlife scene isn’t working.
In the wake of the incidents last year, the Downtown Norfolk Council announced that they were contracting a group of consultants called SafeNight to help downtown Norfolk navigate nightlife. The work of the consultants is nearing completion, and soon a new program called Gold Bar will be rolled out.
As the process wraps up, we got to do a deep dive with SafeNight and the DNC to figure out if Gold Bar can save downtown’s nightlife. As Jim Mastoras, Co-Founder of SafeNight, put it, “the impact [of nightlife] is substantial. It’s one of the most overlooked economic drivers in a city.”
What is (and isn’t) Gold Bar?
The first step in understanding how Goldbar will affect downtown nightlife is to get a clear picture of what it is and what it isn’t. Setting unrealistic expectations that the program is a silver (or gold) bullet is a surefire way to make it feel like a failure.
First up, here’s what it isn’t:
The program is not a new permitting system that will allow or disallow establishments to operate. The power to issue permits, the regulations determining what operations require a permit, who gets approved for a permit, and everything involving Conditional Use Permits will remain in the hands of City staff and elected officials. No immediate changes are anticipated in that space- although SafeNight did recommend some outside of the scope of the GoldBar program.
The program also will not directly change what downtown establishments choose to offer in terms of entertainment programming. It won’t affect how bars and restaurants decide what artists perform, what kind of events to host, whether or not they offer VIP sections, hookahs, or bottle service, or what their hours will be. There is no anticipation that the program will improve the options available to patrons.
Lastly, the program will not directly change the perceptions of downtown nightlife. The idea that downtown nightlife is dangerous has been driven by the litany of press and news articles related to crime in the past year. While some incidents were particularly bad, the body of coverage related to nightlife was almost exclusively negative which is not reflective of most actual nightlife experiences in Downtown. Gold Bar does not plan to directly raise positive stories to the press or work to actively fix the damage done to perceptions held by locals. To be clear, it may prevent further reputation-damaging incidents but doesn’t focus on remedying damage already done.
So, what is Gold Bar?
Nonetheless, Gold Bar is a program that will impact almost everyone involved in running nightlife in Downtown Norfolk. The overarching goal of Gold Bar is “shifting from reactive enforcement to prevention,” according to Jim Mastoras. The program is primarily a set of standard operating procedures and best practices for establishment owners, establishment staff, City staff, and law enforcement organizations.
By building clear expectations between parties and nurturing active communication channels, there’s hope that the community can efficiently execute good risk management. All of those new “best practices” come with a bit of intrinsic change management, which is no easy undertaking. For it to work, Mastoras says “everyone has to buy into it.”
Getting to a collective sense of safety requires “changing the culture to one where we depend on each other, we’re looking out for each other, and we’re setting expectations for each other.”
Let’s look at the program from the perspective of each of these parties.
Owners are being provided with a set of best practices and guidelines based on the consultants’ experience with many other localities and international standards. That will cover both the broader “nightlife ecosystem” that they can operate in as well as internal policies.
Internally that includes pre-made training for their staff and security on everything from identifying fake ids and dealing with over-served individuals to interacting with police and handling potentially violent situations.
On the community side of the house, owners should also be receiving training and guidelines on how to interact and communicate with the enforcement teams from the City government and police departments. They’ll also get a line of communication directly with other participating bars and restaurants.
Mastoras says that the program is business-focused, and the outcome should be “not just operate safely, but for [businesses] to be able to show that like we’re doing the right thing and be able to advocate for themselves.”
The crux of Gold Bar will be an accreditation program for businesses. They’ll have to present up to 27 written policies -depending on the business- to a steering committee to get their accreditation.
The steering committee is still being formed, but the goal is to have 4-5 individuals from Downtown Norfolk Council (DNC), nightlife businesses, and the City’s Business Compliance Unit. However, Mary Miller, President and CEO of DNC, said the policies aren’t meant to be restrictive, rather that “these are policies that will give you the best chance of success and increasing revenue.” Jim Mastoras added, “That’s the beauty of it; many places are already doing most of it.”
The enforcement groups within the City government are going to be receiving training on how to build relationships and get their desired outcomes and the nightlife arena. Nightlife businesses need to work within the rules set by several departments, which can be tedious to keep track of.
Occupancy and parking standards, noise ordinances, event permits, alcohol rules, and health department inspections are just a few of the ways that the City and business owners interact. Norfolk has already spun up a Business Compliance Unit, which is meant to help improve the communication between City departments in this area. Gold Bar is meant to elevate the standards for the group, hopefully, to provide owners with a single point of contact for City concerns. The single point of contact is important so that over time the business owners and the staff can build strong working relationships and get issues resolved with plenty of communication before they escalate to the level of permit revocation.
Mastoras emphasized that when properly run, City enforcement should result from a known process. Saying that enforcement can be “harmful when you just show up with random enforcement because you received a complaint.” He went on to say that complaints coming through channels like “community groups, City Council, City Administration” should be verified and validated by the established nightlife teams before jumping to enforcement. “If [someone] happens to be driving by on a Friday night and says ‘well that bar looks busy,’ get[s] on the phone, say[s] I want the Fire Marshall to go do an inspection there. I don’t see how that can be perceived as fair in any way.” Operating outside of established and communicated norms would run counter to the relationship-building model that Gold Bar hopes to establish.
“The city cannot continue to operate the way they normally do with such a substantial [nightlife] program.”
For police assigned to nightlife-intensive areas, these programs mean that they, too, need to get to know bar owners, staff, and security. In Northern Virginia, Mastoras said the departments were continually throwing more resources at nightlife problems to no avail. Without proper training and expectations, the people on the ground couldn’t be effective. Nightlife management is simply an area that requires specific approaches, which many officers are never trained in.
The work for the police department starts with relationship building. Current temperaments typically mean that police don’t get called until an incident has already gotten violent or very nearly violent. Mastoras emphasized that officers should be seen as important partners, particularly through the lens of legal liability. Security and staff have no legal authority to lay hands on an individual, and incidents could result in hefty lawsuits and insurance premiums.
Mastoras cited an incident from his work in Arlington where police were called to remove a patron with a weapon. Instead of confronting the patron, security helped get police in and out quickly by clearing paths and managing bystanders. The business had less disruption than if the incident had escalated and was back to normal operations in a matter of minutes.
“And when you start changing those expectations and knowing that look, when I come into your establishment, I’m going to take care of this issue for you. I’m not going to blame you for it. I’m going to help you get this intoxicated, patron off your property because you’ve identified them. You’ve helped us intervene sooner before it spills into something else.”
However, without the changes suggested by SafeNight on the City side of the equation, this could be problematic. Partnering with police appropriately should result in an increase in recorded calls for service, which under current standards could be held against a business during CUP review. As in any proper ecosystem, it’s all connected.
Will this work for Norfolk?
Mastoras says that based on their work with other districts, it could take three years for changes to really take hold. While “violent crime could be down 15-20% in a matter of months,” the process of keeping the gains made and extending them to lower-level issues like noise and public urination takes much longer.
The work really is just kicking off in their eyes. SafeNight’s process ends in August, at which point, the tools, guidance, and systems will be ready for use. The process of putting it all into action will just be beginning.
While many business owners sounded hopeful, it’s clear that relationship-building between parties has barely started. One business owner asked Mastoras to a chorus of nodding agreement, “If we do all this work, how do we know the City will keep their end of the bargain?”
The metrics for success will be hard to define. Calls for service from law enforcement should actually increase if the program is successful. The Business Compliance Unit should likewise be collecting a lot more data on the small day-to-day incidents that are already happening if relationships with business owners are healthy. Stronger relationships over time should mean more information sharing, which may look like more problems to the outside eye when it’s actually just a clearer picture.
Over the longer time span, if the program is successful in reducing the harm caused by alcohol and nightlife, the community gains from nightlife should be able to more fully flourish. As people and businesses feel safer in the nightlife ecosystem, more businesses will stay open later, and new ones will open. A developed and growing nightlife culture should also foster more entertainment options as demand grows and niches can be supported.
Those gains start with safety, but Mary Miller and Jim Mastoras both agree that the “scene” needs an advocate. A unified voice from the businesses and patrons in the ecosystem can go a long way toward making nightlife not just safe but truly vibrant. SafeNight’s approach, being focused on the safety aspects of nightlife, didn’t get into the types of entertainment that might be missing in the market, or even talk to nightlife patrons about what they’re experiencing. Without that voice of its own, Norfolk’s nightlife narrative will be crafted by those who don’t participate in it.
Gold Bar is just the first piece of the puzzle, and it hasn’t even started yet. The hardest parts – relationship building, culture changes, and open communication – are still waiting to be tackled. Whether or not Gold Bar will be a success depends on its execution.
Read more about Gold Bar Norfolk at the Downtown Norfolk Council’s website.
Paul Stetson Rice
Paul is the creator of NFKVA.com. He was born and raised in Norfolk, graduated from Virginia Tech, and narrowly avoided law school. Chat with him about economics, entrepreneurship, hip-hop, and hiking. When he's not working on five different projects, you'll catch him sharing a beer with friends at a local brewery.