I’ve been hearing a lot of fuss about food vendors on High Street, and I realized I have some involved perspectives on this topic. There’s been a lot of misunderstandings all around, and I hope that this post helps clear the air.
Let me set the scene for you: as one can imagine in a college town, Morgantown has a vibrant night life scene. Every weekend thousands of students pack clubs, bars and restaurants until the wee hours of the morning. Seeing a business opportunity, several individuals have set up mobile food stands to cater to the inebriated bar goers. They have business licenses and are running legal business. To be clear, there are three vendors who consistently appear on the street during weekend evenings: The Morgantown Taco Truck, Joe the Hot Dog Man, and Birdman. The latter two sell hot dogs. Everyone stays in the same place on the street, each within a reasonable distance from one another.
The Morgantown Taco Truck is a newcomer, but Joe has been selling his hotdogs on High Street for sixteen years. Birdman’s been a landmark of downtown for seven years.
In mid-September the Morgantown City Council, under pressure from local brick-and-mortar businesses, passed an ordinance that prevents these vendors from setting up anywhere within the 300 block of High Street – basically, these vendors are banned from High Street’s busiest section. The ban takes effect January 1st.
The ban has since received extreme backlash from the students and the community. A number of arguments have been heard both for and against the ban: Local bar owner George Papandreas is a big proponent of the ban, and WVU students have organized several petitions. The local blogosphere is pretty pissed off.
The ban still stands unchallenged, however, and the fate of the food vendors hangs in the balance.
I’ve been curious about this conflict since it began last semester and I’ve paired my interest with assignments in my photography classes. As a result, I’ve become intimately familiar with both the businesses that footed complaints about the vendors and the vendors themselves. Last semester I spent an entire night chronicling Pita Pit’s drunken business rush, and two weekends ago I spent an evening with Joe Byrd, or The Birdman, a vendor who has been selling hotdogs in front of Cool Ridge for seven years.
I wanted to write this post to help clear up some misunderstandings on both sides of the argument. All of the following is what I’ve learned throughout my assignments and from talking directly to the parties involved.
Burke Manning, the owner and operator of Pita Pit who is often credited with being the first to complain about the vendors, is not on a vendetta to kick them off the street. He is not the horrible whiney antagonist many make him out to be. He’s a solid guy who works hard, and he has no problems with the vendor’s current locations. Manning had a single, easily remedied issue: he didn’t appreciate the vendors setting up directly in front of his business, which only occurred a few times. As he said in an article I wrote last March,
“It’s cool that the (food vendors) are mobile, so they aren’t limited to where they can be,” he said. “But I think the city should try to level the playing field a little bit.”
Since then, the Taco Truck has refrained from parking near Pita Pit, and on many weekends the parking meters on High Street are closed. If you want to know who is really driving the push to move them off the street, check out some intelligent (albeit cynical) investigation by another local.
I imagine one part of the business owner’s complaints are the extreme differences in taxes paid by the vendors and the brick-and-mortars. From afar, I can see how it looks like the vendors are making great money.
I spent an evening with Birdman and I’ve talked in great length with Joe, and I can safely say the following:
The food vendors are NOT making revenue substantial enough to justify kicking them off the street to “level the playing field.” Joe only works two days a week and doesn’t even live in Morgantown. I’m not sure if Birdman has a debit card. If your complaint about the vendors is that they’re sucking away your business, I’d ask you to rethink your argument. These individuals are living hand-to-mouth. Joe’s been around for 16 years, Birdman for 7. If they had been damaging brick-and-mortars’ revenue, the complaint would have come years ago.
That being said,
“Sidewalk safety” is not the true reason for this ban. The original proposal came as a way to prevent drunken students from stumbling into the street, causing a safety hazard. Last spring Chief of Police Ed Preston gave a presentation that supported the idea that these street vendors impede pedestrian traffic, but it’s pretty clear from both Birdman’s and Joe’s stands that they respect the five-foot clearance required by their business permits. The motivation on both sides of the argument is the same: making money.
I would hope that you, as a reader and a supporter of fair business, also observe and recognize the crazy power struggle that’s going on here. Personally, the vendors are idyllic parts of Morgantown tradition. To eliminate them is to remove a part of our history and our small-town culture. Not to mention the whole thing is a pretty heinous case of eliminating specific business competition with the support of an impressionable local government. I’ll tell you what this ban does: it removes the livelihood of less than ten (all lower class) people under the guise of protecting thousands.
If that’s not unfair, I don’t know what is.
All photos are by me.