Matthew Terrell

Matthew Terrell: One way to save Atlanta’s nightlife scene

What is the impact of nightlife in a community?

We value restaurants, bars and clubs for their ability to make a neighborhood more livable. They provide a vibe, a coolness, that makes a place fun to live, which can add to the value of homes and property. Nightlife also provides a third space for us to congregate, meet like minded people and build community. In this way, nightlife is just as valuable as churches and schools for fostering the social environment necessary for community cohesion. Finally, nightlife is an industry in itself that can pump millions of dollars into a city’s economy, employing thousands of people in the effort.

This last one, the economic benefit of nightlife, is perhaps the most obvious benefit, and yet one of the least understood. When news of the Jungle closing was announced, I was deeply saddened because this was a staple of nightlife for me. I found friends and community at the Jungle. I took thousands of pictures of queens at The Other Show, including images of Violet Chachki when she was just coming up. Finally, I spent untold amounts of dollars at the Jungle and surrounding restaurants and bars.

The “neutering” of Cheshire Bridge is about more than losing the spaces that made the area cool and interesting; we are losing the economic drivers that got consumers like me to spend money in the area. There’s something both sad and ironic about this kind of gentrification. The very thing that made a neighborhood appealing and livable is removed to make way for more people to live there. Without a nightlife industry, will neighborhoods lose their value and appeal?

Atlanta, for all our focus on being businesses-oriented, does not fully understand the impact and importance of our nightlife industry. Simply put, we don’t know the economic impact of the nightlife industry in our city. How much money do restaurants, bars and clubs contribute to our local economy? How many people does this industry employ? How much in tax revenue does nightlife generate for our city?

For Atlanta, we don’t know.

Other cities have realized the value of their nightlife industries and have commissioned studies to gauge their economic impact. San Francisco studied its nightlife industry in 2012 and found that their nightlife establishments generated a whopping $4.2 billion dollars annually in spending. This spending generated a ripple effect throughout the Bay Area economy as nightlife establishments spent money on local businesses, which means $100 spent on San Francisco nightlife may stay in the local economy longer and have a deeper impact than previously imagined. Furthermore, San Francisco found that nightlife establishments employed more than 27,000 people, generating $55 million in payroll taxes.

Closer to home, Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned a study on the impact of nightlife activity in their King Street corridor as a means to understand how bars, restaurants and clubs contributed to the revitalization of the area. The concern with the city was how to balance an industry that creates growth while maintaining a high quality of life for citizens. They realized that policies discouraging nightlife (such as early closure and denial of liquor license) would result in empty streets in Charleston at night, which would be both scary and economically unviable. The conclusion was to balance the needs of nightlife and day life with policies aimed at compromise and economic growth for all.

The leaders of our queer establishments could lead the way in creating a study on the economic impact of nightlife in Atlanta. If we want to see places like the Jungle continue to thrive, and not be replaced by condos, we need data to show our government leaders why they are important, and just how much they contribute to our local economy. Furthermore, a study on Atlanta could and should get granular enough to show the different categories of nightlife industry — queer-themed, adult entertainment, upscale, etc. — so we know the impact and needs of these different areas. Bar, restaurant and club owners need to step and and demand Atlanta commission such a study, because then we can create better policies for this industry.

Atlanta used to be known as a party city. Our nightlife – bars, strip clubs, drag shows — brought people in from around the country. Places like Backstreet, a 24-hour gay club, were the places of legend. As we’ve worked to make Atlanta a denser, nicer, more livable city, we’ve discarded what we’re good at — having fun. There’s immense value to maintaining our nightlife and bringing back our value as a destination for partying. This would add value to our conferencing industry — people want to get a strong drink or good lap dance when they’re in Atlanta.

After all, doesn’t everyone just want to have fun?

Matthew Terrell works as an artist and writer in the fine city of Atlanta. His work has appeared in Vice, NPR, SF Weekly and Huffington Post.