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Vendors are under delicate scrutiny

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- On any weekend, you can follow the aromas. They drift around 18th Avenue S, up and down 16th Street S, maybe all the way over to U.S. 19.

Streetside vendors are frying mullet, grilling chicken and ribs, simmering vegetables, saucing up the hot wings and maybe even battering a few conch fritters.

The sidewalk feasts are a longstanding tradition. Eight, 10 or a dozen vendors might set up near neighborhoods like Fruitland Heights, Cromwell Heights or Highland Oaks. Customers walk up or stop their cars and get out.

The vendors, most of whom operate without licenses, also have attracted government attention.

A task force of city and state officials is looking at how the food sellers go about their business. Officials say health and safety are the primary concerns.

The action is not being called a crackdown.

"It's more of an awareness-type thing, and what other opportunities are out there (for vendors)," said Susan Ajoc, the Neighborhood Partnership director.

"We want to make sure if you're going to do it, let's do it right. We're still real early. There's a lot of discussion about it, especially with the Super Bowl coming up. There will still be vendors out."

It will be a delicate campaign.

Some of the vendors make most of their living by selling streetside food they've cooked on grills and stoves set up on the spot. Many of their customers are people in low-income areas who want to buy inexpensive food.

Some vendors ask customers to pay only what they can; others sometimes give away food.

Still others, such as Al Cross, who was selling chicken, fish and ribs last weekend, believe they don't need licenses if they are operating on private property. And they believe they can look out for their own health concerns.

"If I don't think it's safe to serve, I don't serve it," said Cross, 44, who said he had been operating for three months and had been just breaking even. He hopes to show a profit in another month.

Officials have another viewpoint.

"Our first and foremost concern is health and safety," said Rebecca B. Stewart, a planner with the city's Development Services Department.

And business people who have restaurants or other stores see the street vendors as competition.

"It's becoming a nightmare," said David Welch, a former City Council member who is a member of the 16th Street S Business Association.

"We have been talking about this the past two years. They keep businesses from coming into the area ... and they don't meet health standards," Welch said.

There also have been reports of vendors operating near Azalea Park on weekends, Ajoc said. That area also is on the task force's agenda.

Steve Montgomery, president of the Azalea Homes Community Association, said he had not heard of any vendors working the neighborhood this week.

Omali Yeshitela, an activist who is contemplating a mayoral campaign, is suspicious of the city's posture.

"It's just really a part of a failed or inadequate policy of the city government that would deal with the question of economic development," said Yeshitela, who two years ago started the African Festival Market to address the issue.

The vendors provide a service to the community, Yeshitela said.

"Sometimes they represent churches, sometimes fundraising enterprises. Sometimes it's people who are trying to make a living. It's absolutely disingenuous for the city to try to find a means to shut them down," said Yeshitela, the leader of the Uhuru Movement.

One goal is to make vendors aware of opportunities available through the city's economic development programs, Ajoc said.

For example, the city's Business Development Center might be useful, she said. A workshop scheduled for early next year will include licensing information for vendors. The early part of the vendor campaign apparently will be low-key.

"We don't want this to come across as the heavy hand of government," Ajoc said. "It's really a balance. Someone may be relying on vending as a way of surviving."

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