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Canada looks to Amsterdam for a little night magic

The Dutch city was the first to appoint a night mayor. Now other cities are learning how to foster a vibrant, but safe, 24-7 nightlife

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Association, on Toronto’s Yonge Street, which is undergoing a revitalization.

An old school building is leading the way in how the Dutch are rethinking the night.

Amsterdam felt it wasn't keeping up with the growing 24-7 nature of nightlife in the city and needed a way to both make it safer and capitalize on it. So, along with appointing a "night mayor," a position aimed at improving its night life, the city started thinking creatively about how buildings can be used for different purposes during the day and then at night. This is something larger Canadian cities could consider, proponents say.

On the city's west side, 25 minutes from Central Station – by bike, naturally – De School is now one of 10 24-hour licensed venues in the city. So while the building happily whiles away the day as a café, restaurant, co-working space, gym and art gallery, by night it transforms into the most popular venue in the city, a heaving basement club that has sold out almost every weekend since it opened in 2015.

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The idea for 24-hour licensed venues was the brainchild of Mirik Milan, Amsterdam's first nachtburgemeester, or night mayor. The independent position, jointly funded by the city and night businesses, is the head of a non-governmental organization, operating to improve relations between businesses, residents and city hall.

Appointed in 2012, the former nightclub promoter says the role was created in response to the city prohibiting recreational pole dancing everywhere outside of the traditional sex-trade Red Light District, even though it had become a popular clubbing activity. The night mayor's role includes responsibilities such as identifying locations for 24-hour licensing that could benefit neighbourhoods, as well as fit a changing urban demographic, and spread out nightlife so that it doesn't become a noisy, problematic concentration in one area.

"Night culture is always tailor-made," Mr. Milan says. "The basic principles are the same, but how to get there really depends on the whole governmental system or the social system or the cultural system that is in the city."

The 10 licences granted by the city were deliberately given to locations outside the city centre to spread out the concentration of tourists and visitors interested in late-night revelry. Though the licences are for 24-hour operation, venues can choose when they close their doors to revellers, helping to regulate the flow of club-goers into the streets and reducing the possibilities for excessive noise or violence.

In exchange for granting a 24-hour licence, the city expects the venues to be responsible citizens, policing noise levels and litter and making sure that the partying doesn't get out of control. Signs prominently displayed in places remind revellers to: "Stay classy, think [about] neighbours, drink inside, use a loo."

The licences were also given on the basis of what other services the buildings could offer, with an emphasis on multidisciplinary venues featuring bars, galleries and co-working spaces.

The Paradiso nightclub and live music venue in Amsterdam. It’s one of the city’s most well-known concert venues and was formerly an 18th century church.

"The 24-hour licensed venues are not only for clubbing 24-7 – you can, of course – but it's not for clubbing the whole night, it's also for more efficient use of the building as well," Mr. Milan says.

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Other cities have followed Amsterdam's lead. Paris, London, Berlin and New York have all appointed a form of night mayor or czar in the past few years. It is an idea that has yet to catch on in Canada, though.

Mr. Milan says that many nightlife licences and laws have become outdated. But ultimately it's about creating value for both the businesses providing goods and services, and those looking to purchase them.

"Nobody wants to live in monoculture," he says. "Diverse communities are always more interesting and it's also where creativity starts as well. So I think there should be a sense of integrity toward creating spaces that help build these areas."

Charles Gauthier, the president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, doesn't know what the appetite would be for a nighttime mayor there. However, from his perspective, getting more advocates for the nighttime portion of the economy is never a bad thing.

"We need to get away from that paternalistic, overregulated environment where we're now telling the nighttime economy that your day ends at 2 a.m., 3 a.m.," he says. "I think we need to have a little bit more liberalism to that."

As millennials change the work force, they may push through some nighttime changes.

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"They're making up more and more … of the labour force and they don't understand these out-of-date regulations regarding nightclubs that have to close down at 3 o'clock in the morning," Mr. Gauthier says.

Much like in Amsterdam, he adds that enabling multi-functioning spaces may also help with boosting the nighttime economy, with non-traditional venues being allowed to serve alcohol. However, he worries that a lack of urgency may leave the city lagging.

"The city has chosen to lighten up a little bit in terms of its regulations, but I fear that we're not doing enough, fast enough, and I think we're going to be left behind frankly as we compete for talent around the world."

In Edmonton, the opening of the Rogers Place facility just over a year ago has brought about a shift to the downtown for entertainment options. Ian O'Donnell, the executive director of Edmonton's Downtown Business Association, says the multi-functional sports and music venue has helped to bring about 2.5 million people downtown each year.

While the West Edmonton Mall or Whyte Avenue south of the river were the primary entertainment destinations in the past, Mr. O'Donnell says there has been a distinct shift toward the downtown core, signalled by the opening of a dozen or so restaurants there in the past year.

The development of the Ice District, the $2.5-billion entertainment area just south of the arena, which will be Canada's largest entertainment district when it's completed in two years' time, will further boost the city's nighttime economy.

"It's going to reframe how downtown responds to nightlife and again solidifying the downtown as the centre of nightlife and entertainment," Mr. O'Donnell says.

In Canada's largest city, the need to keep stride with global rivals for talent and events underpins much of its economy, and Toronto's nightlife is no different. Allowing restaurants, bars and clubs to stay open past the current cut-off of 2 a.m. can be a significant game changer in driving business.

"If we're competing against the Amsterdams and New Yorks, we need to be evolving quickly to this," says Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA. "If you look at sustainability of venues on Queen Street as an example, or on College Street, just them having an extra hour to be able to serve and have performances … is a significant economic driver for them."

Like other cities around the world, Mr. Garner says Toronto has to realize that the 9-to-5 workday is no longer relevant, so services and entertainment options have to be tailored to meet the flexible needs of the workers.

As a result, he says looking at the option of a night mayor may be one worth considering.

"But you know that Toronto is not an early adopter, we're usually the last to the game," he says. "So if you're going to start losing the opportunities to those cities then it has economic impact and that's where I think economic development in the city should be seriously looking at 'what does that mean?'"

A former creative director and club promoter, Mirik Milan, a self-styled ‘rebel in a suit,’ was elected as Amsterdam’s night mayor in 2012. The position became a paid one in 2014. Mr. Milan heads up an independent, non-governmental organization which supports all those in need of nightlife-related advice – politicians, media or club and bar owners.

What's a night mayor?

Origin: The roots of Amsterdam's nachtburgemeester stretch back to 2002, when the local left-wing party, GroenLinks, came up with the idea to boost the nighttime economy.

Incumbent: A former creative director and club promoter, Mirik Milan was elected in 2012, although the position became the office it is today only in 2014 when it morphed from a volunteer position to a paid one.

Activities: Describing himself as a self-styled "rebel in a suit," Mr. Milan heads up an independent, non-governmental organization called Foundation N8BM A'DAM, which helps to support all those in need of nightlife-related advice, whether politicians, media or club and bar owners. Though he doesn't actually have any political power, he meets with the official mayor of Amsterdam three or four times a year to discuss the nighttime economy.

Trend setter: Though Amsterdam's night mayor was the original, it has inspired the creation of similar roles in Paris, Toulouse, Zurich, London and, most recently, New York.

Night Mayor Summit: Mr. Milan organized the first night mayor summit in Amsterdam in 2016, bringing together his counterparts from Paris, Toulouse and Berlin and speakers from other cities looking at doing the same.

Chicks on a Mission: He also assembled a diverse collection of speakers earlier this year for a congress about entrepreneurship, sexism and safety for women working in nightlife.

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