February 28th, 2012
San Francisco Bay Guardian Online
OPINION We all know the cultural benefits of nightlife. It's fun. We get to meet people -- friends, lovers, and all the rest. We build community. We hear great music. We dance. We spend time outside on our streets. For LGBT people, we meet other LGBTs and keep our community strong. The list goes on: Without a strong entertainment scene, including bars, clubs, live music venues, arts venues, night-time restaurants, and street fairs, our city would be a less interesting and less diverse place.
But the undisputed cultural importance of nightlife isn't the whole story. Nightlife is a significant economic contributor to San Francisco. It creates jobs, particularly for working-class and young people. It generates tax revenue that helps fund Muni, health clinics, and parks. It allows creative entrepreneurs to start businesses. It generates tourism. It draws foot traffic into neighborhoods to the benefit of other neighborhood businesses.
This is all pretty intuitive. Yet, as a city, we've never actually measured the economic impact of our nightlife scene. One of my first acts a member of the Board of Supervisors was to request the city economist to conduct an economic impact study doing just that.
The study is almost done, and we already have a few preliminary results. Nightlife in San Francisco generates $4.2 billion a year in spending, with $1 billion of that amount coming from bars, clubs, performance venues, and art spaces. Some 48,000 people are employed in nightlife businesses, and these businesses contribute $55 million a year in local taxes. On March 5, we'll announce the full results of the study at a hearing of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee.
This data will help us make smart public policy around nightlife. In the past, those decisions frequently have been driven by anecdote and over-reaction to isolated events. Trouble near a small number of nightclubs? The city responds by making it difficult for all nightclubs to operate, even those with excellent safety records and despite the dramatic improvement in the Entertainment Commission's oversight. Or, the city goes even further and proposes requiring all clubs, even small ones, to scan ID cards of everyone who enters. (That proposal, thankfully, was roundly rejected.)
When we make these decisions, we should do so with a full understanding not just of the downsides of nightlife but of the positives, including cultural and economic benefits.
Entertainment is under pressure in San Francisco. There are neighborhoods with significant friction between housing and nightlife. Some of that friction results from a small number of problem venues. Other times, a good venue is jeopardized for simply conducting its business within the limits of San Francisco law -- for example, a single neighbor got Slim's shut down for a few weeks for noise, despite the club's compliance with our noise ordinance.
We also continue to have bizarre Planning Code restrictions that undermine entertainment, such as the Mission Alcohol Special Use District, which makes it difficult or impossible to start creative new businesses in the Mission if alcohol is involved. This provision almost prevented a new bowling alley from locating at 17th and South Van Ness. Similarly, some are concerned that the Western SoMa Plan, as currently written, will undermine nightlife on 11th Street by surrounding clubs with new housing and by reducing the number of venues.
A thriving nightlife scene is key to our city's cultural identity and economic future. Now that we have the data on its benefits, we can take a more balanced and thoughtful approach.