Elizabeth City, NC: ECDI Needs to Rethink Vendor Ban at Film Fest

Cindee and Joseph Herlocker proudly display one of the cooked hot dogs they prepared on the grill of their new pushcart hot dog business, CJ's Pup Dawgs, which opened Saturday in the parking lot at Mariners' Wharf.

By DailyAdvance.com

Cindee and Joseph Herlocker proudly display one of the cooked hot dogs they prepared on the grill of their new pushcart hot dog business, CJ's Pup Dawgs, which opened Saturday in the parking lot at Mariners' Wharf.

Nearly every time anyone talks about ways to inject some life into Elizabeth City’s public waterfront, the conversation inevitably turns to attractions. As in, what attractions can we come up with to get more people to come to Waterfront and Mariners’ Wharf parks, spend some time enjoying the view of the harbor and maybe drop a few dollars at downtown businesses while they’re here?

One of the great answers to that question in recent years has been the Mariners’ Wharf Film Festival, a free summertime film fest coordinated by Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Each Tuesday evening between June and late July, hundreds of residents turn out at Mariners’ Wharf Park to watch classic films like “It Happened One Night,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Shall We Dance” on a large outdoor screen.

ECDI should be commended for the job it’s done coordinating the movie series. The film choices this summer have been good and the crowds seem to be growing each week.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for ECDI’s handling of vendors for the outdoor event.

As The Daily Advance recently reported, the ECDI board of directors for the first time this summer decided to bar vendors from selling their wares in the area where the outdoor movies are shown. ECDI, a nonprofit group, is allowed to enforce the ban in the public park because of a provision in city ordinances granting a business or organization control of the park for up to three days if their event has been designated by city officials as a “citywide festival.” ECDI obtained City Manager Rich Olson’s approval for the special designation on June 2, less than a week before their first movie of the summer was shown. ECDI officials had gone to Olson for advice about how to bar vendors during the film showings and he advised them that the citywide festival designation was the only way.

As a citywide festival, ECDI has the right to approve or disapprove any or all vendors from selling their wares in the park during a time period it gets to set. ECDI chose to bar vendors from the park area between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., even though its films typically don’t get under way until after dark, which has usually been about 8:30 p.m.

ECDI Executive Director Rebecca Cross told The Daily Advance that the decision wasn’t personally directed any one vendor. Instead, it was designed, she said, to give ECDI “control” of the area where the movies are shown and to ensure the group was “as fair as possible to the several food vendors who requested to sell” their wares at the event.

While it appears to be true that ECDI’s ban on vendors during the film festival wasn’t personally directed at any vendor, there’s no arguing that its sting was mostly felt by the one vendor who regularly sets up shop in the parking lot at Mariners’ Wharf Park: CJ’s Pup Dawgs. Owned by Joe and Cindee Herlocker, CJ’s Pup Dawgs has been selling hot dogs from a vending cart at the park since the last day in April.

There’s a reason the Herlockers paid the city $250 for their business privilege license — the most expensive peddlers permit the city offers. It allows them to set up their vending cart in any city parking lot, including those at Mariners’ Wharf and Waterfront parks. The only time the Herlockers don’t have a guaranteed right to sell hotdogs in the parks is when a citywide festival is under way.

Up until recently, that hadn’t been a problem.

According to Joe Herlocker, organizers of the Potato Festival and the power boat races, both designated as citywide festivals, approved CJ’s Pup Dawgs to sell hot dogs at their events. Organizers of Juneteenth, a third citywide festival, had also OK’d CJ’s participation.

Herlocker says he and his wife were also looking forward to selling their hotdogs before each movie during the Mariners’ Wharf Film Festival this summer. Herlocker’s plan was to sell hotdogs until right before the movies started, and then close down his stand for the night. That way he wouldn’t cause any interruptions for movie patrons, and he and his wife could also sit back and enjoy the films.

Herlocker’s first inkling that those plans were at odds with ECDI’s came via an e-mail from Cross on Tuesday, June 7, just hours before the first movie was scheduled to get under way. Cross advised him that the ECDI board had decided that the only food vending it would allow at the event were its own popcorn and drink sales. It was only after Herlocker called Olson to protest that he learned that ECDI had gotten the weekly film showing designated a citywide festival, meaning his $250 permit was worthless without the group’s consent.

First of all, this is no way to treat fellow businesspeople. If ECDI was going to try to get vendors banned from the park during the film festival, it should have said so publicly — not quietly obtain the citywide festival designation and then announce it to the Herlockers hours before they were planning to set up shop. The city, since it had issued CJ’s its you-can-sell-most-anywhere permit, also owed the Herlockers a phone call.

Second of all, why is ECDI making decisions designed to limit or shut down business activity? With one of its principal jobs being to support businesses downtown, it seems the last thing ECDI should be doing is discouraging one from selling its product at the waterfront. After all, don’t we want more targeted, small-scale commercial activity at the waterfront? And isn’t the Herlockers’ hotdog stand exactly the kind of small, unobtrusive attraction everyone claims the waterfront desperately needs?

Finally, what kind of message does the overly broad vendor ban send about ECDI as a decision-maker? A good decision would have entailed choosing the most appropriate vendors for the film fest (those capable of setting up and closing down quickly and occupying a small footprint) and setting their hours of operation. A ban, however, isn’t a decision. It’s a choice not to decide.

We’d urge ECDI to rethink this ban on vendors using Mariners’ Wharf Park during the film festival. We’d also urge city officials to take a fresh look at the city ordinances that make citywide festivals possible. Currently, the rules don’t appear to apply to nonprofit organizations the same way they do to for-profit businesses. In most respects, they should. The ordinance also needs to be retooled to contain some type of appeal right for vendors, particularly those who have already paid the city for an expensive permit, when their vending rights are summarily and arbitrarily taken away.