The economic and civic opportunity of street vending
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
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.