Street vending in Prince George's County is an open-air, free-for-all mockery of entrepreneurism.
It's every man and woman for themselves. Street vending generates virtually no revenue from license fees or sales taxes for the county.
Want to make some quick and easy money and pay no taxes? Just load a jalopy with home furnishings, apparel or some meat and a barbecue grill and set up shop in an old shopping center parking lot. Then dare health officials to check for sanitation, or simply denounce the law banning vending as being too vague when inspectors ask to see a license.
"The county right now isn't receiving any revenue from vendors," a county government spokesman said.
How can that be, you ask?
Concerned about public safety and health questions prompted by mobile vendor operations, the Prince George's County Council approved legislation three years ago banning outdoor vending on major highways. Vendors also were given two years to phase out their outdoor activities and move to permanent structures.
But vendors continue to do business as usual, from crude stands and dilapidated vehicles, near busy intersections and outside old strip shopping centers. Their reaction to complaints from business and civic groups: The law is too vague.
Vague or not, the issue has spawned confusion all around. Officials aren't taking action against vendors, a spokesman said, because they're waiting for an opinion from county lawyers.
Nothing short of a legal ruling, it seems, will end the standoff. That's obviously why vendors have asked the courts to rule on the legality of the ban.
In the meantime, however, mobile vendors, as they're sometimes called, are enjoying a free ride. And yet they have apparently developed one of the more effective lobbies in the county.
They clearly have an unfair advantage over merchants at fixed locations, who are licensed to do business. The latter are, in effect, subsidizing outdoor vendors.
Three years after enacting the law to ban vending within two years, officials still are struggling to bring closure to this issue. Vendors have not only gone to court in an attempt to seek relief from the ban but they now have a champion in Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D).
Shapiro, a first-term member of the council, recently proposed the creation of special overlay zones for outdoor vending. A committee tabled the bill but Shapiro says he will narrow the focus and reintroduce the measure.
"We aren't even supposed to have vending at all in Prince George's County," insisted Council member Isaac J. Gourdine (D), one of the more outspoken critics of vending in the county.
Tabling Shapiro's bill is plainly a cop-out. It solves nothing and strengthens the hand of vendors as they continue to defy officials while pleading ignorance of the law.
Shapiro says he still thinks establishing overlay zones is a good idea but acknowledges doing that would leave the issue open.
"I think we should set some boundaries for vendors," said Shapiro, adding that establishing a mobile park or a flea market for vendors might be a solution.
"The more I look at this, the more I want vendors," Shapiro volunteered. "I like vendors. There's clearly a market for [them] or they wouldn't be so successful. Vendors make a tremendous impact."
They do, albeit detrimental in the opinion of some county residents and officials. "Vendors add another eyesore to underused shopping centers and [business owners] don't want to lease space in those places," Gourdine complained. "I think it's hurting us economically.
"You're not going to get [other] businesses in those areas [and] people aren't going to move into those areas.
"We have to determine in Prince George's County how we want the county to appear and who we want to sell the county to. It's not helping us at all."
With diligent enforcement of applicable regulations, vending can be a productive part of a community's economy as well as a colorful addition to the fabric of life in a community.
But Gourdine is absolutely correct in pointing out that outdoor vending activity in Prince George's County is out of control and constitutes an eyesore.
Clouds of black smoke billowing wildly from home-made barbecue grills hitched to old step vans, surrounded by a clutch of crudely printed signs, may appeal to some county residents. But it does little to change perceptions about a county that hopes to attract better retailers, more white-collar jobs and more upper-income residents.
Meanwhile, the vending problem can and should be resolved quickly. All it takes is political courage and a little common sense.