It's common knowledge at this point that the City of St. Augustine is working on improvements to the City's nightlife, calling it the "Quality of Nightlife Strategic Plan". I'm also confident that most of the residents of the City, as well as of St. John's County, support the plan and the updates the City has introduced.
City Manager John Regan and City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline have outlined some necessary and routine upgrades to the nightlife economy in historic downtown St. Augustine. The complete proposal, titled Quality of Nightlife Strategic Plan, includes improvements that, most would consider, are basic responsibilities of government.
But it's government and nothing can be so simple.
The City wants to add late night "litter crews" so the trash cans downtown aren't overflowing by midnight. They want to add more lighting to streets and sidewalks, so you don’t need a flashlight to find your car at 2am. They'll create a system for ride-sharing hubs so when you're too drunk to find your car, you aren't hit getting into the Uber when they stop in the middle of the road. And the City wants to be able to have more police officers on duty during those late night shifts so you can be sure your car will still be there the next morning. Who can argue with that?
Here's the kicker. Those extra resources will cost.
It was just a decade ago, in early 2010, the City of St. Augustine passed an ordinance allowing the late night sale of alcohol to bars and restaurants up until 2am, extended from 12am. John Regan, the incoming City Manager at the time, was quoted to have said "It’s not that you lose business between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m.- it’s that you lose customers from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m." as reasoning for why the extended hours were good for businesses and the local nightlife economy.
Ten years later tourism and development have made the area one of the fastest growing in the country.
Now John Regan and Commissioner Sikes-Kline are asking the city and its business owners to decide what kind of nightlife St. Augustine will allow and the reputation it wants to establish, as tourism and development continue to hit record numbers. St. Augustine has become a popular international destination because of its small town charm and gorgeous history and it is important to keep that appeal. This Strategic Plan intends to organize the City's nightlife to preserve that charm. Clean streets for early risers on Saturdays and Sundays. No more dimly lit sidewalks and young people running wild at 3am.
A difference between being a quality dining and entertainment destination or a college town.
Taking pointers from other Florida cities, including Jacksonville Beach, Regan intends to remind local bars and restaurants that it is a privilege to serve alcohol after 12, not necessarily a right. The Quality of Nightlife Plan, which could cost an estimated $250,000 in the short term, according to the City Manager, introduces a permit that businesses would need to maintain to continue serving alcohol after midnight. In his presentation to the City Commissioners, Regan described it as a “tiered permit system” that would be necessary to “offset the cost” of the improvements. The permit would require, among other things, that businesses formally train their bartenders and properly prepare them for dealing with customers that have been over-served. It would consist of clearer policy for restaurants’ and bars’ maximum capacity laws and allow the City better access for enforcing those laws. But most importantly, the permit will come with a fee that late night businesses will have to pay to the City for the privilege of serving alcohol after midnight.
This Quality of Nightlife Strategic Plan is an opportunity to make the City of St. Augustine cleaner, safer, and more organized in the face of overwhelming growth and development. It is critical that business owners, residents, and community leaders make their voices heard throughout this process. Historic St. Augustine is one of the most trafficked areas in the county, if not Northeast Florida, and it will only get more haphazard if the City does not address the issues directly. We have to take control now, rather than wonder what happened a decade from now.
Tourism isn't going anywhere, but our quality of life may be.