For months the District's sidewalk vendors fought implementation of new vending regulations, while the business community supported the rules. Now, with Mayor Marion Barry's decision to ease the rules, the roles of the two groups are reversed -- the vendors are more willing to live with the rules after Barry's modifications, while the business community is crying foul.
Vendors declared the mayor's new stance a victory, while representatives for a number of business organizations rushed to hold a private meeting to survey the damage. They concluded that Barry must be convinced his latest decision gives vendors an economic advantage that could drive some small merchants out of business.
Merchants plan to request a meeting with the mayor and to launch a letter-writing campaign in support of the new rules, which resulted from more than two years of negotiations.
"We don't expect for vendors to disappear, but if they are going to be our competitors we want fair treatment," said Joseph Threatt, cochairman of the Downtown Retail Merchants Association. "They block the sidewalks. They sell the same items at reduced prices and don't charge any sales tax. We are hanging on right now by our fingernails. And if we go, it will eliminate jobs for some people."
George Frain, the secretary for an association of Adams-Morgan businesses, said that small businesses were forgotten by the Barry administration while vendors distorted the real economic issues by insisting that big business was trying to squash the independent street vendors. Frain stressed that the regulations were the result of compromises reached by the city, the merchants and the vendors and that no one had been totally satisfied.
The city was just three days away from handing out $50 tickets for violations of those new regulations when Barry delayed enforcement until June 30 and announced that he plans to modify the rules. He plans to lift restrictions on the sale of most ready-made items, including clothing, to alter the requirement that nonfood vendors use wooden carts, and to establish an 11-member vending advisory commission.
The vendors, who met with Barry before the announcement, declared that they had won major concessions.
The Barry administration contacted members of the business community to inform them of the modifications -- with Barry calling the Greater Washington Board of Trade personally. Still, some business groups, including the Apartment and Office Building Association, accused Barry of failing to meet with them before the decision was made. They concluded that Barry's behavior was antibusiness.
Barry would only say that he was trying to arrive at "a balanced approach to vending." Observers note that the vendors increased their political clout by organizing and demonstrating and using posters that made it appear Barry was against those struggling to make a living.
Ben Johnson, the administrator for the city's Business Regulation Administration, said that the small merchants are forgetting that the mayor does not plan to change many of the new rules. He stressed that the number of vendors in the downtown area would be limited to 2,900, that all vendors will have to pay higher fees and that vendors will be required to keep sales records to make it easier for the city to collect taxes.
"Nothing is set in concrete," said Johnson. "It depends on the conditions on the street. We want to make sure that people can earn a living from vending and we want the taxes paid."
Vendors argued that before the proposed modifications, the new rules would have driven some vendors out of business. Johnson acknowledged that the number of vending licenses issued by June 12 declined by nearly 50 percent, down from about 2,000 to 1,035.