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Editorial: Street vendors downtown merit closer, careful look

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It would be a fair assessment to credit the rapid growth in downtown foot traffic to an expanded and varied choice in eating establishments. The number of diners in the downtown area has even caught the most optimistic supporters of the Vision 2020 project by surprise.

Visual evidence alone — particularly in warm weather when outdoor dining has become especially popular — amply demonstrates that the downtown area has truly been revitalized.

Ironically, this era of good business for restaurants has spread beyond the immediate downtown. Two 11th Street restaurants — Joe Willy’s Burger Bar and Zwanzigz Pizza — have enjoyed a spillover effect from downtown workers, many of whom walk from their offices to purchase takeout items.

Now city officials are exploring ways to build on this success by making it easier for street vendors to sell items from carts and trucks. Currently, the idea is being explored through meetings and conversations with a number of groups — most notable among them, owners and operators of existing restaurants.

This is a particularly sensitive time for many of these restaurant operators. Several of those have just emerged from the effects of the Fourth Street reconstruction, which some say cost them thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

City leaders also need to be sensitive to the fact that these restaurants have to pay for leases or mortgages in addition to meeting large payrolls and operating expenses.

Certain infrastructure considerations need to be explored, such as the effect on traffic and parking. For instance, if the vendors go beyond sidewalk carts to trucks that need to be parked on the street, how many spaces will be lost and will traffic be disrupted?

The potential for adding street vendors to the downtown mix has yet to be ascertained. Certainly street vendors are an important part of the downtown scenes in such metropolitan areas as New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, but whether that magic can be developed in a much smaller city like Columbus remains to be seen.

Before taking that step, supporters of the concept are wise in attempting to determine if it would be injurious to those restaurant operators who helped make the downtown exciting in the first place.

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