Sidewalk vendor Ordinance to be aired

January 11, 2009
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City commissioners will host a public hearing this week on a proposed ordinance that would regulate sidewalk vendors who sell food and flowers downtown, continuing the effort the board began last summer.

Back then, the proposal required vendors to buy a business license and be limited to 15 designated locations in the district, sites that were away from building entrances to relieve the congestion that was sometimes caused when vendors set up shop.

The latest version still requires vendors to be licensed by the city and offers them 13 designated downtown locations. The difference in the new proposal is a vendor wouldn’t be restricted to picking a designated site and staying put, as was the case in last summer’s edict. Under the new ordinance’s language, a vendor could move from one designated zone to another.

“As we did our research and looked into other communities around the globe, we knew we had to really listen, not only to our mobile vendors and our storefront owners, but to the good people — the consumers if you will — who frequent downtown,” said Walt Gutowski, 1st Ward commissioner, who credited WLAV-FM morning announcer Kevin Matthews with highlighting how important the vendors are to downtown.

“Our goal was to be fair and to establish a balance in which both groups can prosper. It is definitely a compromise which requires the goodwill of the street vendors,” said Gutowski, who worked closely with 2nd Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss to create the new version.

The proposal limits sales to pedestrians only, prohibits vendors from verbally soliciting business, and restricts the type of items that can be sold. It requires that prices are posted and a license displayed, and that vendors are insured. The ordinance would give the city the right to inspect vendor carts and would set a basic dress code for vendors.

“I would emphasize that this came about due to good communication, dialogue and problem-solving on the part of vendors, merchants and the city,” said Bliss.

Complaints from downtown merchants about the vendors were made public last June when Grand Rapids Police Captain Rebecca Whitman told commissioners that her office was receiving gripes almost daily about vendors blocking building entrances and leaving trash from their sales on city sidewalks and streets. Last summer, the ordinance required vendors to clean up within 25 feet of their carts. The latest one doubles the clean-up distance to 50 feet.

Like the previous ordinance, the new one doesn’t list the price of a vendor license. But retired assistant city attorney Michael McGuire said in June that federal and state laws limit the city to only charging what it costs to issue one. Vendors who apply for licenses will have to undergo background checks.

The designated vending zones are near Calder Plaza, the Kent County Courthouse, Fifth Third Bank Plaza, Campau Promenade, the Ellis Parking Co. lot on Pearl Street, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the DASH 1 and 7 parking lots, the Ottawa Fulton parking ramp, the Civil War Monument at the east end of Monroe Center, Ionia and Weston, DeVos Place and the 100 block of Grandville Avenue.

Gutowski and Bliss felt the proposed ordinance is clear enough and fair enough that it can be enforced. Both are hoping it gets approved and won’t need any tweaking in a year.

“If we find even just a few mobile vendors to be irresponsible, who choose not to be accountable, we will have no choice but to tighten this ordinance on its anniversary in a way that will limit the mobile vendors’ opportunities,” said Gutowski.

“We have suggested that the vendors develop some type of association by which they can communicate amongst themselves and create a peer pressure that motivates compliance.”

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