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Toronto is changing the rules on the city's nightlife in a bid to boost business after dark

Toronto is hosting its first annual 'night economy town hall' on Wednesday night to discuss ways of boosting business between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. (CBC - image credit)
Toronto is hosting its first annual 'night economy town hall' on Wednesday night to discuss ways of boosting business between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. (CBC - image credit)

Toronto is hosting its first annual town hall meeting on the city's night economy in a bid to boost late-night businesses and venues prepare for big upcoming regulatory changes.

The meeting at the Exhibition Grounds will bring together business owners, service providers and resident groups to discuss how to help businesses and services can thrive from dusk to dawn.

"We want a vibrant nighttime economy right across the city," said Coun. Paul Ainslie, the city's official "night economy champion," whose responsibilities include working to make Toronto a truly 24-hour city.

Wednesday's town hall is the culmination of years of work, starting with the appointment of a "night economy ambassador," or "champion," in 2019. The mission behind that role, taken over by Ainslie in 2022, is to help grow economic activity in the city between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. — particularly in the entertainment and hospitality sectors — while maintaining a balance with neighbouring residents of nighttime businesses.

In the following years, city staff conducted research and reports on the future of Toronto's nightclubs, music venues and entertainment districts outside the city centre.

Regulations changing in 2025

First on the agenda for Wednesday is preparing the private sector for zoning and licensing changes coming next year for late-night establishments. City hall approved bylaw amendments in November that will, among other things, update what entertainment bars and restaurants can provide and allow nightclubs to open in commercial areas outside the downtown core.

Although noise could be an issue for suburbanites as clubs move outward from the city centre, spreading out late night venues would lessen reliance on transit for people outside downtown.

People outside Hemingway's Bar in Toronto.
People outside Hemingway's Bar in Toronto.

Regulatory changes are coming to late-night establishments on Jan. 1, 2025. (Jeremy Cohn/CBC)

"One of the problems is that there isn't enough nighttime activity or vibrancy outside the core. We heard a lot about that," said Marguerite Piggot, film commissioner and director of entertainment industries with the city, who noted the city conducted extensive public consultation on improving Toronto's nightlife.

Allowing clubs to open across the city will also open up more affordable real estate to club owners who are currently only able to operate out of high-rent downtown locations, according to a 2019 city staff report.

City is behind the times: club owner

But for nightclub owners, where clubs can operate may matter less than when.

"The opportunity to operate longer hours is a big thing," said Charles Khabouth, owner of INK Entertainment, which operates multiple Toronto clubs. "That's how you become a real cosmopolitan city. That's how you really become a hub for entertainment."

Fans wait in front of the Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club in Toronto ahead of Louis C.K.'s first night of shows there on October 2, 2019.
Fans wait in front of the Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club in Toronto ahead of Louis C.K.'s first night of shows there on October 2, 2019.

The time that nightclubs close in Toronto is a chief area of concern for club owner Charles Khabouth. (John Grierson/CBC)

Club and bar owners have told city hall in the past that the city's 2 a.m. last call is too early, with one owner claiming a later time could add upwards of $7 billion a year into the night economy.

"Toronto is so behind the times," Khabouth said. "We need the city to mature… We need the city to take lessons from London and Paris and Miami and New York."

Night economy potential

It's difficult to tell exactly how much untapped economic potential the city's wee hours hold.

Toronto's nightlife action plan, completed in 2019, cited a study of New York City's night economy, that found an economic output of $19.1 billion US in 2016. Staff then scaled that figure to the population of Toronto, finding that the city could aspire for a nighttime economic output of $10.6 billion.

But the report didn't identify the actual economic output at the time, and the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns on key industries of the night economy have since changed the playing field. Part of Wednesday's town hall will include an update on the plan.

Despite its name, the night economy town hall will be a chance to consider more than just economics.

Toronto Transit Commission streetcars sit on Adelaide street east at night on Tuesday Jan. 31, 2023. The TTC will resume issuing tickets for fare evasion at the end of March. They stopped ticketing riders who didn't pay to use the system during the early days of the pandemic.
Toronto Transit Commission streetcars sit on Adelaide street east at night on Tuesday Jan. 31, 2023. The TTC will resume issuing tickets for fare evasion at the end of March. They stopped ticketing riders who didn't pay to use the system during the early days of the pandemic.

Improving transportation around the city overnight is one of the ways Toronto can support the night economy, says Coun. Paul Ainslie. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press)

Ainslie says the city will need to consider how to improve transit overnight and ensure the safety of Toronto's night owls, all while the city faces a major budget deficit.

If people feel like they get around easily and safely knowing places will be open, that could benefit business as much as updating red tape, says John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas.

"There's a whole market that's not been able to enjoy the benefits of being in a city like Toronto," Kiru said, pointing to people in the service industry or on shift work.

"At the end of the day, we're moving in the right direction," he said.