A proposed change to the guidelines monitoring noise levels in the small downtown where I live and work has stirred up a controversy no doubt common to other vibrant main streets . How does a city balance the rights of downtown residents and visitors with that of late-night entertainment venues?
Staunton is somewhat unique in the Shenandoah Valley of VA in that it made specific concessions years ago to support a more lenient noise cap within its downtown service district, allowing a higher decibel reading than most other towns. The proposed change calls for outdoor music to be banned after 11:30pm. The trouble stems from an ongoing disagreement primarily between one restaurant with a patio, one inn and one residential building located in a corner of the downtown.
As a downtown resident and advocate of a thriving tourist industry, I don’t disagree that some compromise between downtown revelry and peaceful coexistence is required. There are a number of possible solutions. But the way this proposed change has been handled here has stirred up a much deeper issue. How does a community decide how to regulate a downtown environment? Is it purely economically based or do the people who contribute labor and energy and flavor have an equal stake?
The answer seems pretty obvious to me, but public comments by City Council members referencing the economic contributions of the people they are hoping to protect from the “noise” versus the venues and clientele they attract has set the tone for the standoff. And whether these Council members meant it to sound elitist and anti-arts or not, that’s how it has come off.
Now I’m pretty sure that our elected officials understand that an active, clustered and yes, sometimes late-night arts and culture scene, particularly one offering diverse restaurant and entertainment opportunities, is an attractive draw for visitors. This group of tourists stay longer and spend more if there’s a booming cultural scene. And if some members of this demographic visit, like what they see and then choose to relocate here, they buy property, open businesses and raise families.
An active night-life nourishes a local economy in non-tangible ways too. It provides quality of life for the front-line of the tourism industry, many whom are just getting off work when others are going to bed. These are people who own businesses and homes. They are professionals who have families and care about the community. They are the entertainers, attraction and hotel employees and restaurant workers that keep our visitors coming back. If they are excited about where they live and work, it shows.
The end result is a sustainable cycle of visitors and residents fueling a local economy that encourages diversity, respect and cooperation. Engaging and alive main streets matter to small towns, and they happen from the inside out.
Yes, downtown residents and visitors should voice their opinions about late-night music and be heard. But the workers and consumers of late-night music also deserve to be recognized as the valuable, tax-paying and invested members of the community that they are. Every piece of the downtown matrix is important.
This may have started as a long-running dispute between a small cluster of businesses and residents in the downtown district and digressed into name-calling from both sides, but the positive side is that it daylights an important issue. No matter what Council decides about late-night outdoor music in this specific case, I hope the conversation about managing the downtown environment continues. It’s more complicated than whether music or sleep matters most on main street. It’s about supporting a sustainable community based on awareness, diversity and mutual respect.
And THAT, dear City Councils everywhere, matters a great deal to a lot of voters these days.