City Ready To Regulate Vendors

June 30, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A new city policy that would regulate sidewalk vendors in the downtown district will get a public airing at next week’s City Commission meeting.

As it now stands, the policy would require vendors to buy a license and be limited to 15 designated locations in the district, sites that are removed from building entrances.

It would also ban food and other items being sold from trucks, and only allow push carts to operate during specified hours.

Vendors would also have to collect any trash within 25 feet of their carts.

The city policy is in response to complaints made by business owners in the district. They cited the congestion, and resulting litter, that vendors generate near their storefronts and the sales competition these seasonal sellers create for their permanent businesses, which pay city property taxes and special assessment fees.

“There certainly are storefronts that are being hurt by the lack of an ordinance,” said 1st Ward Commissioner Walt Gutkowski.

“We really have to worry about those folks who have storefronts and pay taxes.”

Grand Rapids Police Captain Rebecca Whitman said her department receives complaints about vendors from downtown businesses on a daily basis. She said the vendors aren’t the problem, though; it’s the congestion created around the vendors that is the real issue.

As an example, Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Jay Fowler said two vendors that set up on Fulton Street near Monroe Avenue created so much congestion around The BOB that the nightspot’s customers had to walk in the street to enter the building.

The policy, written by City Attorney Catherine Mish, could allow for more than one vendor at each of the locations, which are spread throughout the downtown district. Two sites are on Bridge Street. Five are near Van Andel Arena. Three are on Monroe Center, two are on Monroe Avenue, two are on Ottawa Avenue, and one is along the “Medical Mile” on Michigan Street.

“Mobile vending was part of the ambiance of the (former Monroe) Mall,” said Michael McGuire, a retired assistant city attorney who is consulting on the policy.

“The mobile vendors downtown are not mobile; they are fixed.”

Although the proposed policy doesn’t list the price of a license, McGuire said the city is restricted by federal and state laws to only charge what it costs the city to issue one. He said the fee could change from year-to-year, depending on the city’s cost. A vendor will have to meet a list of criteria to qualify for a license, including proof of having passed inspection by the Kent County Health Department.

“I think the ordinance is pretty easy to understand and is self-explanatory,” said McGuire.

Fowler said members of the Downtown Alliance Merchants’ Council suggested that the city should find one location for all the vendors and designate it as an outdoors downtown food court. But Fowler said he couldn’t find a feasible site to do that.

Fowler also said the proposed policy would require owners of sidewalk cafes to clear the walks when their sales season ends and to apply for an encroachment permit every year.

Mayor George Heartwell said the Downtown Alliance will get word of the July 8 public hearing out to business owners in the district.

Whitman said police officers have been responding to the complaints but only have issued warnings to vendors, even to those they have spoken with more than once. Second Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, though, suggested to Whitman that her department should think about writing citations.

The new policy has been in the works for the better part of two years and would replace a policy that has been around for 25 years. Commissioners saw a draft version back in February 2007. A vote to adopt a new policy could come on July 22, with the policy going into effect as early as Aug. 1.

“What we don’t want to get into is a carnival atmosphere,” said Fowler of the policy’s goal. “We don’t want someone pulling up and selling elephant ears.”

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