Our Views: Janesville right to seek comment on mobile vendors

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Visit Portland, Ore., and you might buy lunch or a snack at a street vendor’s trailer.

Rows of “mobile” vendors line some blocks. Apparently, more than 100 offer diverse food and refreshments. They cater to residents, office workers and even tourists.

Except, however, these vendors aren’t really “mobile.” Instead, the trailers stay put for months or years. Portland isn’t the only city that welcomes the vendors.

The picture is much different in Janesville. This city has a growing network of bicycle trails, including a new segment passing through the redesigned interchange at Interstate 90/39 and Highway 11. Still, you won’t find a food or refreshments vendor anywhere on the trail system. Wouldn’t it be nice if a mobile vendor offered ice cream and soda right alongside it?

That day might be approaching, and the city is giving residents and businesses a chance to speak on the topic at a public information and input meeting Tuesday.

It’s about time. Let’s get the conversation started.

Longtime Janesville residents might remember one reason why city ordinances are so restrictive. In 1983, an ice cream truck struck and killed a child.

The topic of mobile vendors started sizzling last year when resident Chad Measner began selling Cajun food out of a converted RV. He obtained state and county food licenses, then set up in a private parking lot on the west side. He couldn’t do business on public property or rights of way—for example, on a street or in the Dawson Ball Fields parking lot—because city ordinances don’t allow it.

What’s worse, city ordinances don’t clearly detail how vendors should handle cash transactions. Measner learned that customers needed to go through an arduous, annoying and time-consuming process of ordering and getting food at his truck, then walking over to pay inside an adjacent business building.

It’s as silly as it sounds. Unless it hears nothing but negative viewpoints, the city should consider easing its rules to encourage mobile vendors and break down barriers to these businesses.

The issue isn’t without controversy, and Janesville is far from alone in debating the topic. Business owners in Milton got riled up in 2012 when a truck started selling tacos in a public parking lot. They argued the vendor had an unfair business advantage because he could move around yet didn’t pay property taxes as bricks-and-mortar restaurants do. Besides, if a vendor such as an ice cream truck started moving from place to place, it could pose a danger if kids started chasing it down the street.

Milton debated a proposed ban last year before backing away from it without enacting any new restrictions.

While safety should be a consideration in small cities such as Milton and larger ones such as Janesville, competition might be the key concern. Yet it isn’t a city’s job to police business competition. If officials believe tax equity is an issue, the city could enact an ordinance to charge street vendors more for annual licenses.

Discussion of all pros and cons, however, starts with input from residents and business interests. Those interested should relish Tuesday's chance to comment in Janesville.

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