City Hall's double standard for Atlanta vendors 

The city bends over backward for food trucks - but not for displaced street vendors

OUTTA BUSINESS: A street vendor pickets in front of the Georgia Dome during last year’s NCAA Final Four weekend.

Joeff Davis/CL File

OUTTA BUSINESS: A street vendor pickets in front of the Georgia Dome during last year’s NCAA Final Four weekend.

Last November, after a long and contentious battle with the men and women who sold T-shirts, candy bars, and other items on Atlanta's sidewalks, Mayor Kasim Reed OK'd the city's public vending reforms. The plan regulated the goods street vendors could sell and the places where they could set up shop. It also lowered the costs to rent city-owned kiosks. As part of the program, officials pledged to find a way to let food truck vendors serve on city streets.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council followed through and passed an ordinance that would make it legal for food trucks to operate on public property, starting in South Downtown. The pilot program would allow vendors to sell food in 18 designated locations on Central Avenue, Mitchell Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and other streets needing a jolt of life. That's a good thing. But it wasn't necessarily fair.

City Hall worked quickly to address the gripes of the food truck industry. Atlanta officials crafted policy based on the food vendors' input. Plans are already in the works to allow food trucks to operate in neighborhoods beyond South Downtown - perhaps citywide - later this year should the trial run prove successful.

It's not just City Hall that's gung ho about the food truck expansion. Atlanta Street Food Coalition President Greg Smith says operators - who once were required to show officials nearly 20 kinds of documents including bank records and letters of recommendation simply to obtain permits - will no longer face as much red tape. Atlanta Deputy Chief Operating Officer Hans Utz says the city's trial run will help them figure out the best way to work around restrictive county and state laws so they can operate in "as many locations as possible."

"It's been a tough couple of years for food trucks," Smith says. "It's refreshing to see this change come seemingly organic through the administration for what vendors have been looking for all this time."

But City Hall's willingness to work with food truck vendors stands in stark contrast to the way officials approached traditional street vendors. The mayor's office dragged its feet on meeting the needs of veteran curbside salesmen who once sold hats, ponchos, souvenirs, and other assorted goods outside Five Points' MARTA station, Woodruff Park, and Turner Field.

Throughout 2013, Atlanta street vendors and Reed battled at City Hall and inside courtrooms. The mayor, who compared the way the vendors did business to "swap meets," ordered Atlanta police to shut down the tables after the city's 2009 contract with a private firm overseeing public vending was tossed out by a judge in late 2012. The city's sidewalk salesmen were suddenly closed for business with little, if any, conversation about what would happen next. For months, they were stuck in limbo with promises of a new vending program but no stopgap to keep their income flowing.

With no guidance from the city, they had little choice but to protest at public meetings and publicly jostle with the mayor. After months of pressure, policymakers finally included them at the tail end of a rushed and poorly handled process. The new program still didn't fully meet vendors' wishes. But most needed to start making a living again and conceded their demands. Months later, the new program has allowed some vendors, but not all of them, to return to selling goods. Many involved still think they were abused by the city's actions.

In many ways, Reed's administration bent over backward for the food truck vending community. That kind of responsiveness is great to see from City Hall. But it's disconcerting to watch as officials selectively help one type of vendor and largely ignore another group. Food trucks, with their gourmet fish tacos and overpriced finger foods, are generally considered a more upscale experience than snagging a Snickers bar and a bottle of water from a street-side table after an Atlanta Braves game. But both types of entrepreneurs are doing the same thing: hawking products. They should both be treated equally regardless of what they're selling or how they're selling it. That hasn't happened over the past 12 months.

At last week's meeting of Council's Public Safety Committee, Willie Brown, a former Turner Field vendor and outspoken critic of the current policy, bluntly framed the city's conduct as a "black and white" issue. "This is a race game," he said. "You're working with the food trucks, but not the street vendors." Councilman C.T. Martin, who was the lone vote against the proposal, agreed with Brown's concerns and said he was "kind of right on" about the city's preferential treatment toward food trucks.

"I didn't think that the [street] vendors were getting the same kind of respect that [food truck] vendors are getting," Martin says. Why is that? It's a question that's worth asking.

Council shouldn't stand in the way of a potential citywide food truck boom. We know Reed wants entrepreneurs to be able to thrive in Atlanta. He started that process with food trucks. And he's doing that with tech startups - even traveling to Silicon Valley to listen and learn. But he needs to make those opportunities available to all businesspeople - no matter their sales pitch and socioeconomic status. Vendors like Brown deserve the exact same respect. They too should stand to benefit from the collaborative and deliberate discussions that food truck vendors received.

On March 21, Mayor Kasim Reed responded with an op-ed defending the city's new vending program and refuting arguments made in this editorial. You can read his column here.

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