Striving For Common Ground

July 20, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — With a jewelry store leaving downtown, the district’s only bookstore hoping to get a liquor license to boost business, and 25 restaurants and taverns in the sector looking at cheaper nighttime parking to improve customer traffic, city commissioners have a decision to make that will affect the future of commerce throughout downtown.

Commissioners have to update a two-decades-old ordinance that regulates vendors who sell from carts and trucks that, according to the city, don’t roam the district as they’re supposed to. Instead, the city said, they choose to park in a single spot to sell their goods — and sometimes that site is in front of a competing business.

Downtown merchants have complained that the vendors are taking away business, creating congestion that doesn’t allow potential customers to reach their doors, and are responsible for a rise in the amount of litter left on the streets from their sales.

Grand Rapids Police Captain Rebecca Whitman said her office gets complaints about these street transactions nearly every day, and they are coming from all types of businesses, not just restaurant owners. She also said she didn’t think the vendors were the problem but rather the congestion their sales create.

A draft ordinance commissioners received would limit the vendors to 15 designated spots downtown. Proponents feel that plan would erase the congestion problem and let vendors conduct their business. But the vendors argue that their licenses give them the right to sell on public property and they shouldn’t be pushed to the fringes or be isolated from the main flow of customer traffic.

Commissioners held a public hearing on the issue recently and 3rd Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins told the Business Journal that merchants and vendors provided some key insights into the matter.

“I think they did identify some common ground, even though there were differences. I think we do have to consider the investments that were made by the property owners and the built-in costs that they have,” he said.

The property owners Lumpkins referred to pay property taxes. They also pay a special assessment fee that goes to keeping the streets and sidewalks clean and to a beautification effort that includes dozens of planters set up throughout downtown. Property owners are expected to pay nearly $3.3 million in taxes and $885,000 in the assessment this fiscal year.

“On the other hand, you have the vendors who just take out a license and they don’t incur costs for, say, the Monroe Center ice-melting system. There were some things that came to the forefront that we had not really given thought to. At the same time, there were some vendors who brought some ideas forward that might lead to some common ground. I think that’s what we should be striving for,” he said.

One idea came from Gregory Gilmore, president of the Gilmore Collection. His firm owns downtown’s largest entertainment complex, The BOB, at 20 Monroe Ave. NW. Gilmore suggested the ordinance should require a vendor to be at least 100 feet from the entrance of a competing business, which wouldn’t restrict vendors to the sites selected in the draft version.

“If I’m selling hot dogs, I shouldn’t be able to put my stand right in front of your door (if you sell hot dogs). The 100-foot distance might be something that might be helpful,” said Lumpkins.

Lumpkins said he also came away from the hearing with a better understanding of why vendors aren’t moving as they’re required. One vendor said she tries to keep her cart moving but isn’t always able to do that because she gets caught up in conversations with her customers.

“I think there is going to be an ordinance. But both groups are pushing it back, and pretty soon summer is going to be done. I don’t know if they’ve lost track of that,” said Lumpkins.

“Some of the commissioners have already expressed that they’re supportive of some things, but there still are things that need to be worked on. I think there will be some common ground.”

On top of the taxes and assessment revenue the city gets from the property owners, the Downtown Development Authority has invested public funds to help quite a few of them develop their buildings. That investment, which has been going on for more than a decade, gives the city another incentive to want the businesses to succeed and is likely to play a role in helping to determine what the ordinance will be.

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