Street Vendors Aren't Sold On Lottery for Jan. 20 Spots

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

The District's street vendors, who were hoping to cash in on Barack Obama's inauguration, say the city is cutting most of them out of the action on the big payday.

The people who spend the year selling hot dogs, handbags, FBI hats and other items must enter a city-run lottery to get a prized spot Jan. 20, the day that record crowds are expected downtown.

And they are not happy.

The city is expecting 3,000 to 5,000 applications for about 500 temporary licenses to hawk souvenirs, food and other goods. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said that, in light of the demand, the coveted spots on the streets around the Mall will be selected by lottery.

Local vendors complained that they are being treated the same as out-of-towners. And they don't want to give up their lucrative assigned sites in heavily traveled parts of downtown, said Brenda Sayles of D.C. Vendors United, a street vendors' group.

"These are hard economic times," said Ted Walker, who has been in the same spot in front of the Metro station at 12th and F streets NW for 18 years. "I was here all day yesterday with $1,500 worth of merchandise and didn't sell a single thing. Not a sweat shirt, despite how cold it was. Not a T-shirt. Not a souvenir hat."

Inauguration Day, when spectators will have money to spend and be hungry for merchandise to mark history, would make up for weeks of slow sales, Walker said.

He is ready with $8 caps in pink, red, black, white and blue, along with $5 calendars and $2 buttons. "This is usually a souvenir stand [of Washington-related merchandise], but now it's all Obama stuff," he said.

A T-shirt picturing Obama with his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Malia and Sasha -- "the 1st Family" -- is the best seller right now. A beaded Obama T-shirt is also popular. "The ladies like this shirt," he said, fingering the metallic studs. "They wear it with a pair of black slacks. It looks real nice. One woman asked me why it doesn't glow in the dark."

Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said officials have not determined how the lottery will work and whether local vendors could get some kind of special consideration.

A DCRA spokesman said the requests for vending spots this year have been unprecedented -- 10 times as many as in the past. Award of new permanent spots by lottery began this year, and spots at the new Washington Nationals stadium were awarded that way. Although it was not clear whether a lottery was used at any previous inauguration, vendors have competed for inaugural spots in the past by lining up on a first-come, first-served basis.

The National Park Service does not allow vendors on the Mall, with the exception of Fairfax-based Guest Services, which has a contract to manage kiosks and stores there, said Bill Line, the agency's spokesman. Guest Services is submitting a plan for additional locations Jan. 20 on the Mall, Line said.

Local vendors said they are not that interested in spots on the Mall, where Jumbotrons will be set up for those too far from the Capitol to see the swearing-in. They also aren't looking to settle on spots close to the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, particularly because those vendors will be restricted to selling official goods of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Local vendors want the customers who are waiting in security lines to get to the parade and swearing-in -- and those areas are controlled by the city.

The dispute marks yet another showdown between the sidewalk peddlers and city officials. They have been tangling in recent years as the city tries to change the image of the roadside retail industry. Policies have been put in place to add variety so that passersby can grab a gourmet taco along with standard fare.

Longtime vendors, however, say the new rules are about pushing them out. The D.C. Council had to intervene earlier this year to get them spots outside the ballpark, for example.

"We should do everything we can to ensure maximum access during this historic event," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "These are small business opportunities, and they can be a part of this prosperity."

Vendors also want spaces Jan. 20 in the center of downtown, said Sayles, who is serving as a liaison between the vendors and city officials.

"The list of recommended spaces are . . . far removed from the area where people are going to be," said Sayles, who has been in the street vending business for more than 20 years. "It's like at Connecticut and K Street."

Visitors, especially those not accustomed to the cold weather, will be scurrying for something to keep them warm, Sayles said. "If they want some gloves, a hat, some hot chocolate, telling people to go to K Street to get it is ridiculous," she said.

Sayles said she has worked at least four inaugurations and the Million Man March. She said the 1995 march was the most profitable.

Walker is also a veteran of inaugurations. He recalled how vendors were once corralled into a common area, which he said was out of the way and not so profitable. The 2005 inauguration worked well because vendors were spread out among spots at Metro stations, he said.

This inauguration, vendors said, will be unlike any they have ever seen. The city might limit the number of licenses to 500, but Obamamania promises to bring illegal peddlers to the city, they warned.

Sayles said she has already received calls. "They have told me point-blank that they plan to be here whether the city gives them a space here or not," she said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company