Downtown Peddler Fee-Narrow-Minded

Traverse City's recent increase for street vendor

permit inhibits entrepreneurship

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.

In many places, permits are used to hinder this entrepreneurial activity. Despite its recent claim as a "foodie destination," Traverse City has effectively put street vendors out of business. The previously high peddler permit price of $50 a day was recently raised to $100 a day by the city, with its use being restricted to private propery. That's $2,000 a month in permit fees if a peddler only works 20 days a month.

Comparably, Madison, Wis. has a maximum rate of $850 a year (depending on product and location) and Grand Rapids has an annual fee of only $246*. City leaders could be leveraging the free enterprise system to make Traverse City a better place for all. Instead, they have raised the rates so high they have restricted who can legitimately participate in the local economy.

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. Businesses that oppose street vendors are short sighted for not recognizing the activity the vendors create.

The city's narrow perspective ignores not only the significant role that these small businesses play in providing economic development, but also how 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 among comparable cities in the Midwest. Not to mention, a proactive stance could provide incubator opportunities for the employees of local establishments and students from Northwestern Michigan College's Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Leaders need to be leveraging the free enterprise system to make Traverse City a better place, not fighting it.

Admittedly, there is a balance that must be struck. Madison has strict, but transparent, quality controls and, like Grand Rapids, restricts where street vendors can operate. Traverse City would be smart to use these cities 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 should create a transparent system that supports mobile entrepreneurship as a means that connects people and sparks collaboration between businesses.

Natural places for street vending might be along Union Street near Lay Park, along the bay front, during the farmer's market, and near major employers. Putting some parking spaces to better use near Cass and State streets is also an option. These are all places that are underserved, have foot traffic, and have untapped potential.

The city needs to harness the street energy that is captured during events like Friday Night Live into an everyday affair. There is a vibrancy created when people are 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 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.

Gary L. Howe is a photojournalist who has worked on assignment for the New York Times, Utne Reader and Traverse Magazine.

*Seasonal pricing for fair weather months and exclusions are granted for events.