Committee Considers New Street Vending Policies

Rumen sells hot dogs on the corner of College Avenue and Broad Street in downtown Athens. His location is prime; there is a plenty of foot traffic thanks to an active college night life.

“I'll be out here as long as there are people,” said Rumen in his thick Bulgarian accent. “Probably until 3 or 3:30.”

The Legislative Review Committee met in City Hall on Tuesday and discussed how street merchants will operate in the future, since many of them are not as lucky as Rumen.

There are currently 25 assigned locations for vending downtown, three of which had to be relocated after the Georgia Theater fire eliminated sidewalk space on Lumpkin Street. But the lack of pedestrian traffic in certain areas makes relocating difficult, and when permits for vacant spaces are given by the Central Services Department every four months, there are always more applicants than spaces.

“I've seen people spending the night in line for vacant spots,” said Central Services Director David Fluck.

Vacant spaces are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Aside from the assigned locations, the Central Services Department allows temporary permits for up to 21 days. Retail or wholesale businesses can conduct sidewalk sales once per trimester, and vendors are permitted within special events like Twilight and AthFest. The current ordinance prohibits vendors from going into parking lots.

“Restrictions on the type of street seems the most sensible way of doing things,” said District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod. “Let the vendors find locations then come to the county for approval.”

Some simply vend without approval. These so-called “gypsy vendors” usually appear on Georgia football game days, then leave the next day.

To sell prepared food, a vendor has to get a certificate from the Health Department. Despite health officials patrolling during home games, enforcement has been a concern of Mayor Heidi Davidson's.

“We have to manage permits so vendors can happen in a legal way,” said Davidson. “The main issue is how we can expand entrepreneurial activity. We want to encourage. How can we do that with food carts?”

Food carts make up the bulk of local street vendors. Of the 25 street merchant locations, 12 sell food, six sell jewelry, three sell art, three sell bulldog memorabilia and one sells perfume.

The current ordinance for street vending was written in 1995. There were 41 assigned locations then- 15 downtown, 15 on Baxter Street, 2 on Baldwin Street and 9 on Jackson Street. But Baxter Street's reconstruction in 2000 eliminated all of its assigned locations, and one location on Baldwin was removed after reconstruction in 2002. The dwindling number of possible cart locations is a concern for small businesses and entrepreneurial hopefuls.

“We want to allow for more opportunities county-wide for vendors. If we want to expand opportunities outside the urbanized core, we need an inventory of spaces available,” said District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby. “We have to define areas we think would be acceptable.”

Hamby suggested the campus of Athens Technical College as a possible future option for street vendors.  

Olivia Sargeant is the general manager of Farm 255, a staple organic restaurant on Washington Street that grows all of their own ingredients. She would like to see more open street vending policies downtown.

Farm 255 has a cart on the patio in front of the restaurant. It is about six by ten feet, but the current ordinance only allows carts of four by six feet on sidewalks. One Farm bartender says Sargeant would like to see carts everywhere in Athens, rendering the town a veritable farmers’ market. In the 25 permitted locations, the current ordinance only allows a given company one cart per block.  

While Sargeant was unavailable for comment, Davidson spoke on her behalf at the Legislative Review.

“Olivia wanted to park it on the street and take multiple parking spots,” said Davidson. “But the ordinance is still pretty restricted.”

Davidson also described how some businesses downtown don't like hot dog vendors. This is mostly because of the smells emanating from carts into brick and mortar establishments. But one anonymous restaurateur complained to her about customers being taken by food stands, Davidson said.

“There's always going to be competition,” said Davidson. “That's what you want.”

Rumen's hot dog cart is near The Grill, which is open 24 hours.

“Everything is ups and downs,” he said. “It's a college town. If it was steady, there would be vendors all over the street.”

But under the current ordinance, that would be illegal. Rumen's corner has the most assigned street merchant locations- four are allowed on the corners of College Avenue and Broad Street according to the Athens-Clarke County Special Sales Code. With a proposed relaxation of location, future competition may get even stiffer.

“The next logical step is to see what other cities are doing,” said District 7 Commissioner Kathy Hoard. “No need to reinvent the wheel.”

Herod's “restrictions better than locations” approach to street vending may catch on at the next Legislative Review session, since a more open policy could alleviate the gypsy cart issue while helping small businesses. If so, Rumen will be waiting.

“It sounds good,” he said. “Everyone would like to expand. If you can choose, you can choose. You barely can pick and choose all things in real life.”