A new proposal to allow street vendors to sell food, flowers and ice cream from carts and trucks in downtown Columbus has been shelved in the face of strong opposition from business owners.
“I’m putting it on hold indefinitely,” Mayor Kristen Brown said in an email Friday after hearing the response.
Brown suggested the idea after hearing from vendors who wanted to sell downtown, initially believing it would be a way to create a more vibrant and welcoming city center. The current ordinance allows street vendors, but is considered by some to be restrictive because of the times and locations allowed.
Downtown merchants and restaurant owners had a range of concerns about the new proposal that had been expected to come before the City Council for discussion in either February or March.
Downtown restaurant owners voiced their opposition last week during a meeting with city planners, who helped craft the proposal after studying the current ordinance and talking with other cities that allowed street vendors.
The business owners made it clear they did not support the idea.
They said many of them still were recovering from lost sales from the Fourth Street and Commons construction projects. They worried about the loss of needed parking spaces for workers and customers, and they wanted a level playing field since street vendors would have a lower overhead and city fee structure, allowing them to undercut downtown restaurant prices.
“We just feel it’s unfair to the brick-and-mortar businesses who are paying taxes and leases downtown,” said Harry Hill, who owns Papa’s Deli restaurants on Washington and Chestnut streets.
Hill said competition is not the issue, but rather fairness with about 14 other downtown area restaurants that operate all week and sometimes struggle to stay in the black, while street vendors likely only would show up at peak sales times such as Friday and Saturday lunches or during festivals and events.
“We’ve put in a lot of money down there, and they would be paying just a $75 permit,” Hill said.
Wayne Blackerby, who owns Soups by Design in an alley off of Washington Street, said his health department license alone cost more than three times the proposed street vendor permit.
“The city has worked hard to improve the area,” Blackerby said. “After shutting down Fourth Street completely, we’re still trying to recoup. This would be adding insult to injury.”
Blackerby said the idea might be better if proposed at another time.
Kurt Schwarze, owner of Fourth Street Bar, also believes the proposal was ill-timed given the challenges faced by business owners as they have watched transformation out their front doors.
“Downtown has come a long way, but let’s finish construction and let it settle down and let us get back into a routine,” Schwarze said.
The end product of a renewed downtown with new businesses, office complexes, parking garages and apartments has been dangled in front of businesses like a carrot on a stick, Schwarze added.
“They keep saying the rewards will come, but the carrot keeps getting pushed out,” Schwarze said.
Schwarze and other business owners also worry about what products would be sold by street vendors. They don’t want a flea market atmosphere with corn dogs and elephant ears, and they also want to make sure vendors would have responsibility for the trash they would generate.
The idea for street vendors seems better suited to an urban setting, said Steve Leach, owner of The Garage Pub & Grill on Fourth Street.
“I don’t see this as being a good fit for Columbus,” said Leach, explaining street vendors typically set up in cities where either a large number of people live or work, such as New York City or Indianapolis.
Leach also doesn’t like that street vendors often are from out of town because Columbus’ downtown business owners usually are involved in community organizations and are donors to local charities.
“(Street vendors) come in and cherry pick hours and bastardize sales,” Leach said. “With local businesses, the money stays here, the employees spend their money in the community and they’re stakeholders in the community.”
Leach added that some restaurants downtown are struggling and he fears that street vendors could take away enough business to cause them to either shut down their lunch business or close altogether.
“I just don’t see it as being necessary,” Leach said. “It’s a novelty, but at what cost? There’s just not a net benefit to the community.”
Some business owners also had concerns about how the new ordinance would have played out for areas currently under construction.
Terry Whittaker, owner of Viewpoint Books at Sixth and Washington streets, was unclear if the proposal might affect his business once the apartments proposed next to his business are complete.
“I’m concerned about several areas,” Whittaker said, noting that street vendor sales could create a burden for current restaurant owners and the types of items for sale might not be what city officials envision.
Whittaker would like to see more input from people outside the downtown area and members of the Bartholomew County Healthy Communities Council.
He also believes it’s an idea that needs more consideration before being brought back to the table.
“I just don’t think the timing is right,” Whittaker said.
Before learning the proposal was pulled, City Councilman Frank Miller studied the old and new versions and had some concerns.
“I’d rather take it slow,” said Miller, who questioned city planners seeking input about street vendor ordinances in Indianapolis and Portland, Ore.
“We’re not that size,” Miller said. “That doesn’t seem apples to apples.”