Our Views: Milton City Council shouldn't stymie competition among businesses

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Monday, August 5, 2013

“It's not our job to police competition, and it's not the job of a city to make sure that one business has an artificial advantage over another.”

Milton Mayor Brett Frazier sums it up nicely in the quote above from Neil Johnson's story in Sunday's Gazette. Council members should keep that in mind Tuesday when they debate a proposal to regulate mobile street vendors.

A proposed ordinance would ban most vendors from selling goods on public property or in parking lots. A draft suggests that vendors “may constitute a danger to public safety or an impediment to public use of public parking lots or public property.”

Safety appears to be a minor issue compared to the overriding concern of competition. Alderman David Adams went so far as to call mobile vendors “squatters” who have an unfair advantage because they don't pay property taxes like bricks-and-mortar shops.

That's narrow minded at a time when rows of essentially fixed vendors line streets in many cities.

Milton Chamber of Commerce Chairman Mark Warren said the chamber might forward a recommendation to the council. He told Johnson that the city might be moving too swiftly and should give the business community a chance to weigh in.

Even better: give not just businesses but residents more time to comment.

Sure, kids darting through a parking lot to buy ice cream might be at risk of being hit by cars. Limited parking might be an issue at spots such as the new splash park at Goodrich Park. Of course, if parking limits customers, a vendor might soon leave.

Last month, Adams suggested he sees no equitable way to limit the number of vendors and believes it's best to ban all. The city, however, could limit vendors to two or three. Supply and demand will dictate their success or failure. If the council is concerned about tax equity, charge street vendors more for licenses.

Last year, a taco truck came to town and riled some tavern owners. The operator paid only a $25 fee for a direct seller's permit, exposing the fact that the city has no appropriate rule to cover mobile food vendors. The $25 permits normally go to businesses selling goods and services door to door.

The last thing the city should do at this crucial point in its history—when a major bypass is about to open—is send the message that it's unfriendly to business. Beth Drew suggested as much, noting that officials should be open to commercial variety and vibrancy.

Of course, Drew prompted this latest debate. She wants to sell ice cream from a van at Schilberg Park and other spots. That park is across the street from the Cone Zone, raising complaints from owner Robert Tracy.

Drew is no outsider, however. She owns two other Milton businesses and has worked on committees charged with redeveloping Goodrich Park and improving business signage—initiatives prompted by the Highway 26 bypass.

That bypass will route some 16,000 vehicles around rather than through this city of 5,500 each day. Some businesses likely fear that out of sight means out of mind. In April, however, Johnson reported that Highway 26 bypasses around Fort Atkinson and Jefferson to the north improved downtown foot traffic and demonstrated anew that people patronize shops and restaurants offering good products at fair prices.

The same thing could happen in Milton, whether customers are drawn to bricks-and-mortar shops or mobile vendors. Milton's council should not snuff such competition.

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