City goes forward with crucial hearing

May 6, 2012
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said the biggest concern restaurant owners had about the issue last fall was they didn’t receive enough prior notice of the public hearing the Planning Commission held on it.

So Heartwell and city commissioners set their public hearing regarding a zoning change for concession sales last week, a full five weeks in advance of its June 12 date.

City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz said the issue has generated a great deal of interest. It revolves around letting mobile food-and-beverage vendors park their trucks and set up their stands on private property to sell their wares. Vendors would have to get permission from property owners and work out some sort of a lease arrangement with them and not with the city, as the ordinance change would cover the property through a Special Land Use and not the vendor.

“Usually these sites are abandoned gas stations, which are largely parking lots,” said Schulz. “And a vendor would have to work things out with a property owner.”

But chances are those sites would be near downtown or in some of the city’s 20 neighborhood business districts, which could create competition for the existing restaurants that pay property taxes and, perhaps, other assessments.

Schulz said most downtown restaurant owners oppose changing the ordinance, but some don’t. Others have told her that adding vendors to a business district might increase customer traffic, and being a vendor could be a good way to start a new business that would grow later.

A variety of opinions regarding the matter were expressed at last fall’s hearing, and commissioners may hear more of the same next month. For instance, the Neighborhood Business Alliance, which represents the business districts, offered its support to change the ordinance.

Neighborhood Ventures Executive Director Mark Lewis told planners that brick-and-mortar businesses are the backbone of each district, but not all districts have enough of those. He pointed out there are neighborhoods lacking in food choices and other amenities, and this may be an opportunity to increase the vitality of those neighborhoods and fill some vacant space.

Kevin Farhat and Jeff Lobdell of Restaurant Partners Inc., which owns 10 eateries and a catering firm in the region, told planners there already are an abundance of restaurants downtown. Farhat said some are doing well, while others are struggling. Lobdell said he operated his 10-year-old Sundance Grill, near the corner of Pearl and Ottawa, for seven years, and either lost money or broke even each year. He said he didn’t turn a profit until ArtPrize made its debut in 2009.

Both Farhat and Lobdell felt that food trucks could make downtown more attractive. But the vendors could take business away from the existing restaurants, which could result in more empty storefronts and lower property values.

Mark Sellers, who owns a handful of downtown nightspots with his wife, Michele, told planners that he felt food trucks would be a good thing for the city, and that vendors would be such a small subset of the local industry that they would have little impact on established restaurants.

Sellers also said vending is a fairly low-cost way of getting into the business, especially for newcomers, in comparison to going the brick-and-mortar route. He added, though, that the profit from such a venture can be small. He said a good food truck can cost from $50,000 to $100,000, and he couldn’t see a lot of those being set up in parking lots across the city. Sellers also said vending is a part-time business that is only good for five or six months out of every year.

Schulz told city commissioners that the new ordinance wouldn’t be soft. “As we get more familiar with how these operate, we may ratchet back some of the regulations,” she said. Schulz added she expects about a dozen locations will end up qualifying to host vendors, and the corner of Fuller and Wealthy SE is a leading candidate.

Commissioner Dave Schaffer was the lone vote against holding a public hearing. He felt changing the ordinance would add another administrative responsibility for the Planning Department and the City Clerk, which would license the vendors. He also felt vendors would hurt the restaurants. “It will have quite an impact on our brick-and-mortar restaurants,” he said of the zoning change.

“I’m not sure how I feel about this issue,” said Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, “but we should have a public hearing to hear from both sides on this.”

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