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Street vendors vital to D.C.’s economy
(Published October 22, 2001)

Before there were department stores and supermarkets and shopping malls, Americans depended on neighborhood merchants.

We need only visit historic Eastern Market in our own city to get some inkling of how the majority of retail business used to be conducted years and years ago. We’ve come a long way from horses hitched to merchants’ carts brimming with goods for sale.

But in those intervening years – which brought us improved sanitation, increased variety and greater convenience – we lost something important as began to accept without question that "bigger is better."

We largely forgot how valuable local small businesses are to the vitality of our city. That’s why we drive 10 miles into the suburbs, fighting traffic all the way, to save a few dollars on merchandise that often ends up costing us much more in wasted time and gasoline than had we simply bought it from our neighborhood store.

And, curiously, the major organizations that today represent the local business community don’t seem to recognize that street vendors are a legitimate part of the local business community, too.

A case in point is the latest proposal before the D.C. City Council that would dramatically change street vending regulations. The proposal, sponsored by four council members, was drafted by the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), a tax-supported nonprofit organization that represents some of the city’s largest commercial property owners.

Essentially, the BID proposal would permit certain organizations – accountable to no one but themselves – to take control of how public space is used within designated commercial areas of the city. These private organizations could impose their own definition of "acceptable" use of public space, without any input from the taxpaying residents who own the space. The bill would effectively privatize the public’s property.

Street vendors showed up en masse Oct. 17 to oppose the proposed legislation during a city council hearing. Many of them accused the city’s wealthy business owners of trying to put them out of business to stifle competition or to take over the space for sidewalk cafes.

In recent years, the number of licensed vendors on D.C. streets has dwindled from several thousand to only 872 today. Increased city taxes, more stringent restrictions on vending locations and a moratorium on new vendor licenses have been blamed for forcing out many of these entrepreneurs, who are among the city’s most visible minority business owners.

To her credit, Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose, who introduced the Downtown BID’s vending reform bill, appeared to be giving serious reconsideration to the bill as she heard day-long testimony from numerous vendors at the hearing she chaired. Many local newspapers, including The Common Denominator, also testified against the bill. Ambrose vowed to delay further consideration and to work with vendors to resolve regulatory problems in an equitable manner.

Vendors hawking their wares and diners relaxing at sidewalk cafes help provide a vibrant atmosphere on our city streets. Both are valuable amenities that make the District’s commercial areas more attractive and safer places. They can and should co-exist as vital contributors to D.C.’s economic health.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator