PORTLAND — The city is moving to create regulations for outdoor arts and crafts vendors and food trucks.
The City Council’s four-person Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee created two separate task forces at its Feb. 16 meeting, asking them to consider the issues surrounding food trucks and street vendors and to develop recommendations for regulations, committee member and District 2 Councilor David Marshall said.
“There’s a sense of urgency on both these issues,” District 3 Councilor Ed Suslovic said, because the council wants to take action by May. The task forces are designed to first bring their policy recommendations to the committee, who will consider them before presenting to the full council, Suslovic said.
Currently, there are no food trucks operating in Portland. “I don’t think we have the regulatory framework that would allow them,” Suslovic said.
The mobile restaurant trend has taken off in cities around the country in recent years, and their arrival in Portland seems virtually guaranteed. Brunswick already has several summertime food cart operations.
“You’ll see it happen,” said Steve DiMillo Sr., a restaurateur who is concerned about the way the city regulates food trucks on two fronts:
Loosely regulated food trucks could set up near his DiMillo’s restaurant on the waterfront, bringing direct competition.
And DiMillo is also considering moving into the new market. “We’re talking about … a Dimillo’s mobile operation,” he said.
“It makes sense for a lot of us operators to diversify and open up other arms of our operations, especially because we could do a lot of the prep work in our kitchens,” DiMillo said.
Despite the apparent demand, how to best integrate food trucks into the city’s dining scene remains uncertain.
“There’s a lot of interest from the general population and we want to make sure that we do it in a way that’s complementary to the great foodie town that we already are,” Marshall said.
Local food truck supporters tend to toward one of two philosophies, Suslovic said: the laissez-faire approach, requiring food-service licenses but providing little other regulation, or a more controlled path dictating where and when the trucks can operate.
Besides the issue of economic competition – some argue that food trucks would have an unfair advantage over bricks-and-mortar establishments because they wouldn’t pay property taxes – whether the trucks could use public parking spaces and how they would power their outfits need to be considered, Marshall said.
The ordinance governing sidewalk food vendors requires them to stay 65 feet from permanent restaurants and seems to work well, Suslovic said.
Marshall said he thinks the city should establish specific areas outfitted with utility hook-ups for food trucks, a model that has been successful in Portland, Ore.
The debate over street vendors revolves around the proliferation of artists and crafts-makers selling their creations on sidewalks, particularly on First Fridays and on days when cruise ships dock in the Old Port.
Suslovic, the council liaison for that task force, said the vendors can create safety problems as sidewalks become congested and pedestrians feel forced to walk in the street.
Permanent businesses have also complained that the vendors add competition and make it harder for shoppers to access their establishments, he said.
In their attempt to control who can sell goods on the sidewalk, the city has been trying to define what a street artist is, said Marshall, an artist who recused himself from the the process of creating the street vendor task force because he makes some of his income that way.
“It puts city in an impossible position of having to go out and decide what is art,” which the U.S. Supreme Court has given special protections, and what are crafts, Suslovic said.
The task force should be able to “frame the issue and bring us some options,” he said.
“If I was a vendor I would probably be frustrated by what could seem like a very arbitrary decision. I don’t think that anyone is looking to put anyone else out of business,” whether they are sidewalk vendors or permanent shops, Suslovic said.
“We’re just looking to come up with a fair way to organize that everyone can operate under,” he said. “In some ways its a nice problem to have, because we’re victims of our own success.”