Home > Complete Streets, Cultural Movement, Economics, Editorial, Health, Walking > The economic and civic opportunity of street vending

The economic and civic opportunity of street vending

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NOTE: The TC City Commission is revisiting it’s rate raising from earlier this summer at tonight’s City Commission meeting at 7pm. No major change is likely, however, it seems likely that one action they may take-up is altering the $100/day permit fee to not apply City wide. 

Hitting the street

A version of this commentary was originally published in the August issue of the Traverse City Business News.

There is a vivacity one achieves standing on a sidewalk while biting into a falafel sandwich. You take a bite, tzatziki sauce drips down the side of your cheek, and a complete stranger hands you a napkin. Words may or not be spoken, but a connection is made that makes everything taste better.

Street vending is ancient. It is a community activity where people of different circles consume side-by-side while sharing ideas and information. It is only in recent times, and in more stodgy and stuffy places, where street vending is erroneously restricted. This is to the detriment of democratic engagement, small business entrepreneurship and opportunities for more affordable ethnic food choices.

City raises permit rates

Simon Joseph of Roaming Harvest-$100/day permitting would likely push him out of City.

In many places, permits are used to hinder this entrepreneurial activity. Despite it’s recent claim as a foodie-destination, Traverse City is such a place. The previously high peddler permit price of $50 a day was recently raised to $100 a day and its use is restricted to private property*. Comparably, Madison, Wisconsin has a maximum rate of $850 a year (depending on product & location) and Grand Rapids is $246 a year! Last month, when the City Commission voted to increase this fee they echoed that they were doing so out of fairness to downtown businesses. They failed to mention that businesses worried about competition have their own advantages.

There is also nothing restricting storefront owners from opening their own street cart. Traverse City actually makes it easy for downtown business property owners and their renters, both are exempt from permit fees and, if their property is conducive, can avoid the rent that other street vendors must pay. In fact, a growing trend around the nation is for restaurants to use street carts to test products and capture new customers. Opposition to street vendors by businesses is myopic for not recognizing the activity street vendors create.

The City’s narrow perspective is ignoring the significant role that these small businesses play in providing economic development, but also in attracting talent to the region in an economy where the brightest and most educated are seeking places that have a quality of life that is more civically engaging. By being proactive and accommodating, Traverse City could stand out amongst comparable cities in the Midwest. Not to mention, provide for incubator opportunities for the employees of local establishments and students from NMC’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Leaders need to be leveraging the free enterprise system to make Traverse City a better place, not fighting it.

Embrace it, make it your own

Admittedly, there is a balance that must be struck. Madison has strict, but transparent, quality control and, along with Grand Rapids, restricts where street vendors can operate. Traverse City would be smart to use them as models and establish some boundaries to protect not just businesses, but also the citizenry’s interest in the public space. The City shouldn’t rule in a hierarchical system, but attempt to create a transparent system where different interests share a responsibility towards the goal of accommodating mobile entrepreneurs as a means towards a better place that connects people and where businesses collaborate.

I foresee street vending occurring in places along Union Street near Lay Park, in places along the bay-front, during the farmer’s market, and near our major employers. Putting some parking spaces to better use near Cass St. and State St. is also an option. Places that are underserved, have foot traffic, and have untapped potential.

The City needs to harness the street energy that is captured during events into an everyday affair. There is a vibrancy created with people being drawn to the streets. That civic activity is good for the community and it is good for all businesses. Street vending brings a little of the energy of a Friday Night Live to our everyday lives.

And, in the end, perhaps it is just another way to have access to good food. As a friend recently said to me, “who doesn’t like chicken on a stick?” Exactly. Not to mention a taco cart or two.

* Seasonal pricing for the fair weather months and exclusions are granted for events.

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  1. September 4, 2012 at 9:34 am

    I love food carts. Downtown merchants actually have nothing to fear. It may be true that food cart dining may be preferred over fast food burger joints, but carts have little to no impact on restaurants where people want the complete sit down and serve me something dining experience. I have lunch served by Simon whenever I can, and I used to enjoy the falafel lady until Traverse City vendor fees ran her out of town (yes her business is alive and well, in another Michigan city). Our loss. Their gain. Portland is one of many cities in the U.S. that embrace food carts. In fact they now have a map helping folks locate the street cuisine they crave. http://www.foodcartsportland.com/

  2. Richard Miller
    September 4, 2012 at 9:46 am

    M’Lynn is right on with respect to food carts, especially downtown. They contribute spontaneity, ambiance, and increased choice with very little negative effect upon serious dining. Peddler carts with cheap knock-off merchandise, however, are another thing.

  3. Nancy Griesinger
    September 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    I am all for the charm of street vendors selling prepared foods; fresh produce; real flowers; and ice-cream products. I object to Palm Readers and Sun-glass Sales Tents; Fake Purses and Shoes out on public street corners or in town in courtyards.

    I think allowing the restaurants to place tables and chairs and provide service for their patrons outdoors is one of the best moves ever made by TC. If the item being sold is meant to be eaten right then and there….wonderful….I love walking down the street with a coffee or ice cream cone.

    However, we need to power-clean our sidewalks more often if that does come to fruition. Dirty sidewalks (which we have aplenty) are ugly and unsanitary. So, in addition to beautiful hanging flower baskets (love ’em) let’s clean up the place and make it look inviting to those who want to dine Al fresco.

  4. Anni Macht Gibson
    September 5, 2012 at 9:00 am

    This reminds me very much of the fear-mongering in the THEATER industry when videos came out. The movie industry was dead set against it. And what happened???? They ended up laughing all the way to the bank when it was discovered that: 1) rather than decreasing movie theater attendance, it it was neutral and in some cases (blockbusters) increased because people craved the “big-screen” experience. And, 2) people wanted to “serially-view” their favorite flicks at home. And do so forever. At will – not just when the networks decided to air them. And so this “threat” turned into Manna from Heaven: a brand new revenue stream!!!

    My hypothesis? Street vendors will cater to different clientele or different “eating occasions” than the restaurants. I would assume that price points are cheaper than most of our sit-down venues and certainly the food can be eaten on the run or if patrons do sit, the time taken can me minimized vs even the quickest meal – say House of Doggs – where I have managed (on a slow day) to order, get my dog and drink and eat it in about 12 minutes (burp!) Vendors are great (just as they are in New York and Hong Kong!) for grabbing interesting “eats” when you have one of those days when the 10-12 meeting at Boardman and Washington is followed by a fast trot over to Union and Front and you are presenting need time to review your notes and you forgot to pack a lunch. . . Chicken Satay (on a stick) – perfect!

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