Meet The Woman Managing Fort Lauderdale's Economy After Dark
The economy in Fort Lauderdale doesn't sleep. And now the city has a team in place to oversee, and even improve on that reality: The "NITE" Team.
The woman leading the NITE Team is Fort Lauderdale's Nighttime Economy Manager Sarah Hannah-Spurlock.
On a Friday night as Spring Break season starts to wind down, she visited the city's entertainment district, also called "Two Street," to check in on how things were going. March Madness fans, business managers, and people dancing were in the streets and cheering inside bars.
"I love people watching and this is a great place to do it," she said.
Fort Lauderdale is one of only a few cities around the world that has someone in a role like this, a Night Mayor of sorts. It's a city employee who works to make going out on the town safer and more fun for everyone including businesses, employees, and neighbors. There are eight cities in the U.S. (Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Pittsburgh, New York, Orlando, Washington D.C. and Fort Lauderdale) that currently have positions like it, though Iowa City is between Night Mayors right now.
"We prefer manager. You know, there's other things, Tzar, empress, I've been called lots of things," Hannah-Spurlock said. "But the idea is to bring attention to the need to address our nightlife."
The idea to have someone in local government, looking out for the needs of the city after 5 p.m. - became popular in Amsterdam in 2012. Fort Lauderdale started in 2018 following recommendations from the Responsible Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit that helps cities implement night managers.
"Government has traditionally been a Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. operation," Hannah-Spurlock said. "A Nighttime Economy Program recognizes that a very significant portion of our economy happens after 5 p.m., and on the weekend."
If you ever go out for happy hour after clocking out - or if you ever go out to dinner - you are contributing to the night time economy. One of Hannah-Spurlock’s goals is to figure exactly how big of a role these nighttime hotspots play in the larger Fort Lauderdale economy.
"It's really the million-dollar question, well the multi-million-dollar question," she said.
She plans to ask the city to do a fiscal and economic impact study for nightlife businesses in the upcoming budget year. Being able to answer that question will help her be a better advocate and mediator between these important pieces of the economy, and the city and its neighborhoods.
Hannah-Spurlock is familiar with the tensions that can exist between all stakeholders. She was most recently the Assistant City Manager in Key West. She said the entertainment scene there is, well, different in downtown Fort Lauderdale…
"What happens in Key West stays in Key West kind of mentality. Two Street [in Fort Lauderdale] - you know, people come down here to be seen," she said.
Since she's been with Fort Lauderdale, Hannah-Spurlock has taken over things like special events permitting for the city. She helps with disorderly conduct disputes that happen at vacation rentals, and she wants there to be a focus onsafe transportation options at night. That's because she’s not only concerned with party-goers:
"We want that bartender who gets off work at 4 a.m. to be able to get to her car or get to a bus, or get to somewhere to get home safely," she said. "And we want that to be as big a consideration as [it's] during the day."
Hannah-Spurlock's NITE team helps with safety. They answer calls from the city's 24-hour customer service hotline (954-828-8000) and work into the middle of the night, or even into the early morning.
The team is made up of several police officers, a fire captain, maintenance workers, and a code enforcement officer.
George White has worked in code enforcement for 20 years, but he's recently switched to the NITE team. He walks around the entertainment district, meets with business managers and checks permits for any food vendors nearby. He said it's the atmosphere he likes most about working at night.
"I've always been a night person. And at my age - you know I'm 57 years old - just being around the younger people helps keep me young," he said.
Hannah-Spurlock actually does most of her work during the day, when more of the owners of the restaurants and clubs are awake. But she likes to drop in on the night shift about once a month.
One of the business owners she's worked with so far is Jeff John. He runs some of the most popular spots in Fort Lauderdale, like the concert venues Revolution Live and America's Backyard, through the Damn Good Hospitality Group. He said at first he wasn't totally convinced that a night manager would do anything for him.
"There's always a little bit of skepticism, what's going to happen, how's it going to translate? But after meeting Sarah and dealing with the city - I believe in it," he said. "I believe that if it can help our city, then I'm 100 percent on board."
He's happy the city is taking nightlife businesses seriously, and helping boost their voices. This time of year one of the main events he's focused on is Spring Break.
"I would say every year out of the last four years has been better," he said about the turnout.
City officials in Fort Lauderdale cracked down on spring break 30 years ago, but it's coming back now. The travel club AAA even named Fort Lauderdale the second most popular destination for Spring Break in the country last year.
Meanwhile, Miami Beach has been taking major steps to make its spring break crowds, smaller.
But Hannah-Spurlock said Fort Lauderdale is doing Spring Break right this time, and a little growth is good for business.
"We want them to come here, we welcome their business, we just want them to be responsible," she said.
And it’s her job to make sure things run smoothly - and to make sure neighbors and businesses know they have an advocate with the City - even after spring break season ends on April 7.