Stop Politicians and Landlords from Corporatizing Athens, Ohio

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By Damon Krane
The Athens News
Monday, April 2, 2018
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The author in 2016, working at Hot Potato Food Truck, which he owns and operates in Athens, Ohio.

 

Ask Athenians why they love their town, and you’re sure to hear about our local independent food and beverage scene, our arts scene, and our progressive politics. And what’s interesting is how deeply these three elements of our community are intertwined.

Our local food and beverage scene is nationally renowned, not because of the ubiquitous corporate fare of chains like Applebees and Starbucks, but because of the innovative culinary diversity of independent local businesses like Casa Nueva and Cantina, Restaurant Salaam, Jackie O’s, Bagel Street Deli, Donkey Coffee, Village Bakery and many more.

But how many local art openings does Ruby Tuesdays host? How many local musicians or poets perform at Starbucks?

Could you purchase bus tickets to a national demonstration against the Iraq War at Jimmy Johns? Did Papa John’s CEO join indigenous water defenders at Standing Rock? How much bulletin board and table space does Wendy’s devote to literature on community and campus organizing?

Who’s got solar panels on their roofs? Who buys from local, organic farmers?  Who participates in Rural Action’s Zero Waste Initiative? Who strives to pay employees a living wage? Who is a worker-owned cooperative?

As a socialist, far be it from me to romanticize entrepreneurship – including my own (I own and operate Hot Potato Food Truck). Not every local independent food and beverage business supports our arts scene or participates in our progressive politics. But a very large percentage of them do – as compared to about zero percent of their corporate counterparts – and that difference matters.

That’s why it’s so infuriating that our Democratic mayor and city council are undermining the food, drinks, arts and politics that we love so much about Athens by helping landlords corporatize our food and beverage scene.

Last summer the Athens News reported on four commercial spaces for rent uptown and on the Near Eastside – each a prime location for a food or beverage establishment – that had been sitting vacant for months. The reason is simple. To maximize their profits landlords have demanded higher rents for these spaces than local independent operators can afford to pay. That’s why nine months after the News’s article, three of those spaces remain vacant and one is occupied by a Starbucks.

But that’s only half the story. While landlords are holding out for high volume corporate chains, city officials are making it harder than ever for independent local operators to enter the market through mobile vending.

Only brick-and-mortar restaurants can provide the experience of indoor seating, table service and cozy ambience. But mobile vendors can follow hungry crowds of pedestrians throughout the day, providing a convenient bite to eat outdoors. In food truck-friendly cities, vendors are permitted to operate from most public parking spots. Cities charge vendors a fee to compensate for parking meter revenue and then collect income tax from mobile vendors’ sales. Residents enjoy more diverse dining options. Cities gain funds to pay for expanded public services. And because parking spots aren’t auctioned off to the highest bidder, local vendors don’t get displaced by inferior corporate chains.

Yet Athens city officials have immobilized mobile vending, long confining vendors to a fraction of a single city block and preventing them from operating on private property during the springtime neighborhood festivals. When our current mayor, Democrat Steve Patterson, was on city council in 2013, he drafted an ordinance that slashed reserved vending hours on Union Street by a whopping two-thirds, thereby making it nearly impossible for vendors to serve dinner at an event on private property elsewhere and then return to College Green for late night operation. Then last November Independent council member Patrick McGee set out to reduce the number of vending spots on Union Street, and at the February 26 council meeting Mayor Patterson pointed out that some cities don’t even allow mobile food vending on city property outside of occasional special events. (The cities Patterson cited were Chillicothe, Marietta and Oxford, Ohio, none of which is known for a thriving food, beverage, arts, or progressive political scene.)

By immobilizing mobile vending and making it ever more difficult for vendors to operate, city officials have prevented vendors from traveling with the times.

When I first moved to Athens in 1999, College Green was like a beach. In fall and spring it was packed with sunbathers and Frisbee players, groups of people relaxing on blankets as they talked or read – and, of course, abundant mobile food options. When I began working at the Burrito Buggy in 2006, the old student center was still right next door and its Front Room provided climate controlled indoor seating and a spacious outdoor patio.

But in 2007 OU moved Baker Center to the other side of campus, taking with it the daytime crowds from College Green and the dining space of the Front Room. As bar goers gradually became more concentrated near the intersection of Court and State streets, late night business along College Green also dissipated. Finally, in 2012 OU switched from quarters to semesters, thereby removing May from the regular school year and depriving vendors of what had been their best month of student business.  Yet despite changing pedestrian traffic patterns and a shortened school year, city officials kept mobile vendors trapped in the same spots since the 1980s.

In the face of gentrifying market forces, mobile vending is a vital way to protect our progressive local culture – but not if city officials continue to stand in the way. Athens needs to revise its antiquated vending ordinance to either 1) make most public parking spaces available to mobile vendors or 2) open up additional restricted vending areas in other locations.

If you agree, then it’s vital that council and the mayor hear from you – at this Monday’s council meeting at 7:00pm on the 3rd floor of the City Building, and via phone and email. Because right now they’re discussing a new ordinance that would not only keep mobile vendors immobilized but also reduce vending space. They couldn’t do worse for Athens if they tried.

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Damon Krane is a longtime Athens, Ohio-based progressive activist, campus and community organizer, and journalist. He owns and operates Hot Potato Food Truck.

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