Fairness of St. Marys Street Vendors Debated

By Tiffany Pakkala | Jacksonville.com

Some feel it will give brick-and-mortar shops additional competition.

ST. MARYS – Downtown business owners have a beef against a proposal to open a hot dog vending cart near the historic district’s waterfront.

Allowing a street vendor to set up shop would be unfair to “businesses already in town paying property taxes and overhead costs, hanging on by their fingernails,” Rosemary Rillo told the City Council Tuesday.

Her husband, Roger Rillo, who is president of the Downtown Merchants Association, said the association is “not happy” about Arthur Griffin’s proposal to operate the cart just south of the intersection of Osborne and St. Marys streets near Lang’s Marina.

“Having a street festival with street vendors is one thing. Permanent street vendors is another,” he said.

He pointed out that St. Augustine recently faced off with its street vendors, who he said were interfering with that city’s larger “contributing” businesses.

Griffin did not speak at the meeting but submitted a letter to Mayor Bill DeLoughy ahead of time.

City Planning Director Roger Weaver recommended the council deny Griffin’s application based on the city’s history of rejecting such plans. City Clerk Darlene Roellig told the council that only nonprofit groups have been allowed to sell items in the proposed area in the past, and those sales were only allowed during St. Marys’ Starry Nights events.

Weaver said he told Griffin he would recommend against the plan, but he said Griffin still wanted it presented to the City Council.

In his pitch to DeLoughy, Griffin wrote, “Currently, people visiting the park and taking sight-seeing tours to the Cumberland Island have no opportunity to purchase a snack other than a sit-down restaurant. If folks have an opportunity to eat a snack without going home to get it, they might spend more time in the downtown area shopping and enjoying the sights.”

Griffin, who already owns a home remodeling company in St. Marys called Utopia Home Services Inc., anticipated that other business owners would squawk at his proposal.

But he argued in his letter, “I don’t believe my hot dog cart will take business away from ‘brick and mortar’ shops, because my food selection doesn’t compete with their offerings.”

He wrote that research by fast food giants McDonald’s and Burger King has shown locating the restaurants right next to each other actually improves both businesses’ bottom lines because “people like choices when they eat out.”

During a recent trip to New Orleans, Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Trader said he saw the way street vending can add character to a downtown when done right.

“I think there’s a niche there for someone to sell hot dogs to people getting off the boat,” he said, pointing out that many tourists forgo spending time downtown in order to find a quick meal off Georgia 40 or in Kingsland.

Councilman Greg Bird suggested looking into pros and cons of allowing a street vendor before making a decision.

“We’re all trying to make a living and no one wants competition,” he said, “but I want to look into this a little more.”

DeLoughy agreed.

“We heard compelling arguments from folks tonight, but we need to give everyone a fair shake,” he said.

The council directed Weaver, the planning director, to put together a report about other cities’ experiences dealing with street vendors.

In addition to his letter to DeLoughy, Griffin gave the council detailed plans for his business; diagrams of the cart he’d like to use; and a copy of Fernandina Beach’s policies for vending carts, which he suggested could serve as a model for St. Marys. Street vendors in Fernandina must pay that city a yearly franchise fee in addition to the other permits, insurance and fees required under state laws.

Griffin hopes to begin selling hot dogs, sausages, chips and drinks as early as April. He would start out offering his wares only on weekends.