When Night Falls

A man walks into a bar and orders a drink. If it’s past midnight, he has Sarah Hannah-Spurlock, Fort Lauderdale’s first nighttime economy manager, to thank for that.

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Sarah Hannah-Spurlock puts Fort Lauderdale’s nighttime economy at the forefront.

By Nila Do Simon 
Portrait by Scott McIntyre

Two blocks north of SW Second Avenue, a street known for its slate of popular bars, concert venues and clubs that produce some of Fort Lauderdale’s more raucous nights, is Sarah Hannah-Spurlock’s office. Located on the seventh floor of City Hall, it could be said that her workspace—nestled inside a buttoned-up government building with 9-to-5 staffers—might as well be two light-years away rather than two blocks away from the boisterous entertainment district filled with after-hours revelers. But if Hannah-Spurlock has anything to do with it, that relationship gap will soon diminish.

Since taking on the role of the city’s first nighttime economy manager in January 2018, Hannah-Spurlock, 49, has worked behind the scenes to enhance Fort Lauderdale’s nightlife, making it a more viable, influential source of economic impact. And if that means she needs to shake up some archaic legislation, then consider it done. 

If you’re wondering what exactly a nighttime economy manager does, then you’re in good company. It’s a newer role that a handful of urban cities around the globe (think Amsterdam and London) have adopted in recent years. In simple terms, a nighttime economy manager acts as the go-between with government agencies, businesses and the public to communicate ideas about how to maintain a safe and vibrant social experience within entertainment districts during the evening and early morning hours. While part of her job includes dealing with the occasional noise complaint or illegal parking situation, Hannah-Spurlock sees it more as an opportunity to institute measures that ensure Fort Lauderdale’s nighttime hospitality sector runs smoothly and results in a superior evening experience, which in turn can bring more consumer dollars into local businesses. 

Hannah-Spurlock has even influenced legislation, repealing an outdated ordinance requiring businesses that sell alcohol to apply for an extended hours permit if they wanted to serve drinks past midnight. Now, those businesses can serve alcohol until 2 a.m. during the week, 3 a.m. on the weekends and 4 a.m. in the entertainment districts without going through the red tape of applying for the permit. She’s also hoping Fort Lauderdale will evolve to make daytime amenities available past 6 p.m.

“There needs to be services available around the clock, not just during traditional work hours,” she says. “For example, millennials might not work the normal 9-to-5 shift. For that millennial who gets off work much later and needs to get a haircut, do we have that service available for him?

“I believe there needs to be as much focus on the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. as there is on 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. My goal has been to make the city aware that life operates on a 24-hour basis, and there needs to be services that cater to various hours.”

If anyone can bridge the gap between government agencies and the nighttime hospitality industry, it’s Hannah-Spurlock. With nearly 20 years of experience working in the public sector in roles that include assistant city manager of Key West and Sunrise, she’s always enjoyed working to improve the community. But perhaps her secret sauce is a little-known career she dabbled in while earning her bachelor’s degrees in political science and German, and her master’s degree in public administration at the University of Kansas. She waited tables and bartended to pay for school, working some 100 hours a week. She enjoyed the vibrancy and excitement that comes with the night so much that she even went to bartending school before getting her master’s. 

“I enjoyed talking to the hospitality patrons,” Hannah-Spurlock says of her former job. “I have an affinity for the festive nightlife.”

Today, as she heads a team of 10 consisting of police, fire rescue, code compliance, and parks and recreation personnel, Hannah-Spurlock’s job is just as much about safeguarding a great social atmosphere as it is about educating the powers that be about its vital role in the economy.

Her position was created as a result of a city-commissioned study by the Responsible Housing Institute released in 2017. The study’s main purpose was to assess “current and emerging entertainment districts to determine opportunities and gaps in supporting the evolution of Fort Lauderdale as a destination for a positive social experience.” 

Among several key recommendations the report had, it noted that “Fort Lauderdale’s overall economy is evolving to include new sustainable industries, technology, conventions and expanded services, requiring the young professionals bringing new skills and older professionals providing strategic and management skills. A dynamic nighttime economy with vibrant social experience is the priority amenity many of these people seek.” Fort Lauderdale is the first South Florida city to adopt the nighttime economy manager role, following Orlando’s hiring of its first manager six months earlier. 

Hannah-Spurlock’s job is about to get even more challenging. With 11,000 new residential units in some stage of development in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the increased construction and huge wave of incoming residents will no doubt give way to more noise complaints and other problematic scenes. But it’s something she’s prepared for. 

“Fort Lauderdale is entering a new era, and there’s so much we’ve yet to experience,” she says. “Part of my job is to think about things that people don’t think about yet. It’s hard to prepare for what you don’t know about yet, but that’s the challenge I love.” 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 Issue.