By Chad Cain | Gazette Net
NORTHAMPTON — The city took steps last week to uphold its longtime practice of prohibiting mobile food trucks from operating downtown. Still, several councilors indicated they’d like to consider rules that allow restaurant-on-wheels businesses to co-exist with brick-and-mortar establishments.
The move is prompted by the rise in popularity of food trucks in the Valley after seeing success nationwide.
For years, Northampton has had various regulations in place that governed the permitting process for mobile operations. These regulations spell out what permits are needed and define how such businesses can set up shop.
Confusion arose last spring when a mobile food cart began operating in the Central Business District, which prompted Mayor David J. Narkewicz to recommend the City Council pull together relevant rules into one, easy-to-follow ordinance.
Several councilors said the food trucks should not necessarily be excluded from the more populated downtown areas. While they support the ordinance in the short term, these councilors called for a more detailed conversation about the issue with business owners, the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and others.
City Council President William H. Dwight said it’s a good idea to offer a broader variety of food options downtown, particularly at lunch and after hours. While he doesn’t want to threaten existing restaurants, Dwight believes mobile food trucks might provide variety in a way that helps the downtown restaurant scene rather than threatens it.
Relegating food trucks to the peripheries “makes me a little squeamish,” Dwight said.
He said he’d like to explore identifying an area to accommodate food trucks. That could include local brick-and-mortar restaurants participating with their own mobile ventures.
“These are great opportunities not to be feared and I hope that we pursue it in consultation with existing businesses,” Dwight said.
Narkewicz said he welcomes such a discussion.
“My goal was to codify our current practices in an ordinance, but I’m clearly open to a discussion going forward if people want to look at this as a policy issue,” he said.
One resident, Patrick Boughan, of 95 Straw Ave., urged the council last week to consider allowing food trucks to operate downtown, arguing that the presence of such mobile businesses might help existing restaurants and draw more customers to the downtown.
He maintains that food trucks do not hurt local businesses.
“It’s actually shown in a lot of cities that they drive more customers to the downtown area because they use social media to draw people in, as opposed to just passersby coming on the street,” Boughan said.
He provided councilors with a detailed packet of information about how the mobile truck movement has thrived and helped other downtowns grow, though he acknowledged the need for guidelines. Some of those guidelines might include setting distance limits from similar businesses open during the same hours.
“So a pizza truck could be banned from parking within 100 feet of Sam’s and other pizza establishments, but a lobster roll truck could park in this area,” Boughan wrote.
Other rules might include limiting the number of food trucks that can operate in a given area within certain zones of the city or clustering food trucks in one area, such as the space used by the Tuesday farmers market.
Regulations now prohibit the operation of mobile food trucks in the Central Business District, which includes all of downtown, stretching north up King Street to its intersection with North Street and south on Pleasant Street to its intersection with Holyoke Street. It is roughly bounded on the west by State Street and a portion of the south side of West Street and to the east by Hawley Street.
While most members of the council agreed to a wider conversation about the issue, a few expressed the desire to protect existing restaurants. At Large Councilor Jesse M. Adams thinks it’s important to allow mobile food trucks to do business in the city, but at the same time he wants to protect downtown restaurants, many of which have downsized or gone out of business in recent years.
“This is a good balance because it allows mobile food trucks to be in the city, but it does protect the restaurants downtown and in Florence, somewhat,” Adams said.
Ward 7 City Councilor Eugene A. Tacy suggested that the city study the issue and review the regulations again a year from now to see if changes are in order, similar to how it handled recent changes in rules governing home occupation permits.
“I don’t see why we can’t handle this the same way,” he said.