Our Views: Mobile vendor rules put progress on Janesville menu

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Milton officials should swing by Janesville for Cajun-style lunch at Chad Measner's South Padre Food truck.

They could then take a cue from their Janesville counterparts.

Some Milton officials argue mobile food vendors create unfair competition for bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The Janesville City Council, however, unanimously passed open-arms ordinance changes Monday night.

It's a dramatic turnaround from restrictions Janesville enacted after an ice cream truck struck and killed a child in 1983. Measner parked in a private lot on the west side, but Janesville's limits were so ridiculous that his customers ordered food from his converted RV, then had to visit a nearby business to pay.

Now, licensed food trucks and carts can pitch hot, prepared foods along streets and in public and private lots in most areas of Janesville except residential neighborhoods. Trucks and carts selling ice cream and other packaged confectionaries can sell in residential areas, after the council rejected a plan commission recommendation to bar them from neighborhoods.

Sales can run from 8 a.m. to dusk in residential neighborhoods, until 9 p.m. in other areas and until 3 a.m. downtown.

Food truck vendors will pay $500 for initial licenses and $250 for annual renewals, while cart vendors will pay $100 each year.

Councilman Mark Bobzien suggested the fees were excessive. However, Gale Price, the city's manager of building and development services, said they would help recoup staff time for reviewing applications.

Besides, the fees might appease restaurant owners who pay property taxes while mobile vendors won't.

Still, don't expect mobile vendors to spring up all over Janesville. Only serious operators would pay the fees, along with costs for state and county health permits. Janesville won't soon resemble tourist-friendly Portland, Oregon, which has 100 or more vendors.

By opening the doors to vendors offering hot and cold foods, however, Janesville took a progressive step toward redeveloping downtown. Councilman Matt Kealy, a restaurateur, envisions mobile units serving as incubators to eventual eateries that fill buildings. Downtown, these vendors could cater to office workers, residents and even tourists. Along the bike trails, they could offer inviting refreshments.

Not all owners of restaurants and other fixed-spot businesses selling food will be happy. The city, however, spent two months soliciting feedback and crafting ordinance changes.

“I think it opens up to some great competition, great food, great things in the city,” Measner told reporter Neil Johnson. Measner praised the council and Price. “I think it's going to be exciting.”

In Milton, the council is refining a proposed ordinance. Alderman David Adams characterizes mobile vendors as “squatters” and thinks the city should ban them. That's narrow-minded. It isn't a city's job to police competition. If tax equity is a concern, enact an ordinance that charges license fees that create some balance. Given Milton's smaller size and limited parking, the city could also limit vendor numbers.

As merchants struggle to attract outsiders who speed around the city on the new Highway 26 bypass, however, the last thing Milton should do is send a message that it's unfriendly to business. Instead, follow Janesville's lead.

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