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INDIANA: Borough Council revisits issue of vendor licenses

by RANDY WELLS rwells@indianagazette.net on September 19, 2012 11:00 AM

The days of transient retail vendors in downtown Indiana may be numbered.

Indiana council Tuesday again discussed the topic councils in the past have frequently debated: The pros and cons of licensing vendors to sell goods, primarily food, from carts or trailers along borough streets or on sidewalks. No vote was taken, but based on comments made during the council work session there is support -- but not unanimous backing -- for repealing the transient retail business ordinance.

Three transient retail business licenses are now in effect but only one -- issued to "Hot Dog John" Minda, of Saltsburg -- is actively being used. If the ordinance is repealed, those one-year licenses would not be renewed when they expire.

The debate over whether transient retail vendors add to downtown Indiana's charm or unfairly take business away from established merchants who pay taxes and create jobs began before Minda was first granted a license in 2004. Aspects of the ordinance were also debated in 2007 when the owner of a company that buys back textbooks from parking lots challenged the borough's efforts to control that temporary business.

The issue is back in the spotlight again because the borough received several applications for licenses shortly before the fall semester began at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Applicants for the licenses generally seek permission to operate during the evenings and early-morning hours at locations close to the IUP campus.

As council in August considered four applications, Indiana Police Chief William Sutton said the borough's transient retail business ordinance is cumbersome, not specific enough and needs to be streamlined so it can be handled better administratively. Sutton suggested merging the transient retail business ordinance with the ordinance regulating door-to-door solicitation and canvassing. A first step, Sutton suggested, was for council members to agree on what they want -- no transient vendors at all or a limited or unlimited number of vendors -- so a revised ordinance can be drafted.

Some effort was made Tuesday evening to influence that decision.

"I don't understand what the purpose is of giving permission to these (transient) businesses. Just because they're asking for it?" said Levent Akbay, co-owner of Romeo's Pizza. "I pay rent. I pay tax. … I invested in this community. … I don't know what purpose those businesses serve other than to serve themselves."

Jess Bowman, main street manager for Downtown Indiana Inc., the merchants' association in Indiana's business district, told council a majority of the business owners there are not in favor of allowing transient retail vendors to operate in the downtown, in part because they cause a loss of revenue to established businesses and because of what Bowman called "appearance."

"The people sitting here (representing a couple other downtown businesses) give back to the community," said Hastie Kinter, owner of Lucy Rae Gifts & More in the downtown. "They employ people, they pay taxes … The investments made by some of the businesses are significant." Kinter is a co-owner of The Indiana Gazette

Sutton said among the options council could consider are not allowing transient vendors at all or permitting them only in certain areas. And if they are permitted to continue operating, revisions to the ordinance should focus on the days, times and locations where they can operate, the fees they would be charged and the administrative process for submitting, reviewing and acting on applications, he said.

Councilman Richard Thorell suggested the license fee, now $220 annually, could be raised significantly and justified because many established merchants downtown not only pay taxes but are now also paying annual fees to the Business Improvement District program.

"I can assure you, if you raised the fee, some of these people are going to go away," Sutton said.

"You have to show the fee is rationally related to the purpose of the ordinance," said borough solicitor Wayne Kablack.

It was also asked if it would be legally defensible to revise the ordinance to keep transient retail vendors off Philadelphia Street and off the first block of streets intersecting Philadelphia Street in the downtown.

"If they don't have enough money to open a business, how do they have enough money to sue us?" council President Nancy Jones asked.

Council can take no action restricting transient retail vendors operating on private property, but the borough's zoning ordinance would prevent them from moving into residential areas.

Councilman John Hartman said council eight years ago "opened a can of worms" when it first granted a transient retail business license. He said he favors repealing the ordinance and requiring Hot Dog John and other transient vendors to leave when their licenses expire.

Jones asked the other council members present to be sure they want to move in the direction of repealing the transient retail business ordinance before Sutton, Kablack and borough manager Jeff Raykes spend time and energy preparing a draft ordinance. She said she wants to make sure council won't -- once the decision is made -- cave in to public pressure from those opposed to the repeal.

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September 19, 2012 10:45 AM
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