Originally published in The Weekly Packet, March 22, 2018
Street vendors, added attraction or unfair competition?
by Anne Berleant
A March 20 public hearing on a handful of new or revised ordinances to be voted on at town meeting veered into unplanned territory when businessman John Warren stated his dismay at a proposal that would allow food trucks to compete with local restaurants.
Would they be in competition, or be an added attraction that would help all businesses, including sit-down eateries, by bringing more people to Blue Hill?
The latter seemed to be the prevailing sentiment from selectmen and many residents at the hearing.
“Competition brings people into town. It’s not the same food and not the same service,” Selectman Ellen Best said.
Under the proposed revised ordinance, a food truck could apply for a three-day, one month or annual permit and would undergo an application process that includes a public hearing, similar to liquor and amusement permit applications.
The mobile units would be banned from selling their to-go items within 50 feet of restaurants, a provision that rankled Warren, who has bought downtown properties that once held restaurants but have stood vacant, some for years.
“I’m here to support what you’re doing. I would hope you’d support what I’m doing,” Warren told selectmen.
But Chairman Vaughn Leach described a scenario where a tourist would swing through town, stop for lunch at a food truck, continue on to a sight-seeing destination in Deer Isle and then return to a Blue Hill restaurant sighted earlier in the day for dinner.
“It’s a model that has been proven to work,” he said.
Warren took the opposite view, that the increased traffic a successful restaurant will bring to downtown will attract food vendors that “could cripple those businesses…I see this as a potential problem for the existing spaces you have,” he said.
“If your business can’t survive a food truck you shouldn’t be in business,” resident Geoff Anthony replied. He said it was high rents that closed restaurants in the past.
Gabrielle Wellman agreed: “It’s happened over and over again for 30 years.”
The ordinance regulates vendors parked on town-owned property, such as the park or wharf, and allows “traveling” vendors, such as ice cream trucks. “There aren’t that many spots and they’re not that close to existing food businesses,” Selectman Jim Schatz said. He noted that the revised ordinance—which was amended 10 years ago to restrict food trucks—could be amended in the future after evaluating its effects.
“We’ve made it virtually impossible for a mobile vendor the last 10 years,” Best said. “People were not happy.”
The revised street vending ordinance, along with proposed ordinances banning single-use plastic bags used at grocery and retail stores and polystyrene foam food service containers, are available at town hall and will be posted soon on townofbluehillmaine.org.