Months after Traverse City officials doubled daily operating fees for transient vendors like food trucks from $50 to $100 a day in the downtown district, the City is poised to revisit the issue following pushback from local merchants and residents.
The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) conducted a special study session last night (Tuesday) before a packed audience to solicit feedback from downtown business owners, residents and transient merchants – ahead of a DDA board vote Friday morning on the issue. The board has been asked by an ad hoc committee of the Traverse City Commission to provide a recommendation on potential revisions to the policy, particularly as it relates to where transient vendors may operate downtown.
Simon Joseph, owner of Traverse City's first food truck, Roaming Harvest, is part of a coalition called TC Street Food, advocating for more relaxed regulations for transient vendors in the downtown district. At Tuesday's meeting, Joseph said his committee has received letters of support from local restaurant owners and has collected more than 530 area residents' signatures on a petition supporting downtown food trucks, noting many believe food trucks contribute to community vitality and offer more diverse and affordable dining options. The committee advocated for a proposed recommendation presented to the DDA to allow vending on all public streets, with the following provisions:
Lift location-based restrictions on mobile food vending on private property (currently, daily fees apply even to vendors operating on private land);
Completely restrict mobile food vending on Front Street from Boardman Avenue to Union Street, in order to address parking and safety concerns;
Completely restrict mobile food vending within twenty feet of all intersections to ensure a clear line of sight for traffic; and
Provide contractual exceptions to the above rules for special events.
Nick McAllister, owner of downtown-based House of Doggs, says he enjoys dining at food trucks but has serious business concerns about their presence downtown. His objections echo those voiced by several other restaurant owners at Tuesday's meeting, including those of J&S Hamburg and U&I Lounge, who say mobile vendors don't pay the same taxes and investment costs as brick-and-mortar restaurants and will unfairly compete with their businesses.
“This (pro-food truck) proposal supports those who invest little in the community at the expense of those who invest much,” McAllister says. “I played by certain rules when I opened my business, and food trucks should have to play by those rules, too. I have no problem with them in the right location, but I don't think downtown is that place.”
City attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht cautioned the DDA board that limiting or removing food trucks “for the purpose of merely preventing economic competition between mobile food vendors and restaurants" does not comply with legal precedent and could make the city vulnerable to litigation. Such non-complying regulation could possibly include enforcing a distance between trucks and restaurants, such as the 200-foot distance proposed by some downtown restauranteurs.
In its vote this Friday morning, the DDA board will decide whether or not to make a recommendation to the City on transient vendors as it relates to their location downtown; from there, other contested aspects of the City's mobile vending policies – such as fee structures and number of vendors allowed downtown – will be decided by the City Commission. Commissioners are expected to visit the issue in the coming weeks.
For his part, Joseph says he's confident food trucks and restaurant owners can find middle ground in a proposal "that works for everyone."
"I know this is the beginning and not the middle or end of the process," he says. "We all want what's best for our business. I believe there's room for us all to work together."