A few months ago, the Greater Washington Board of Trade was asked to recommend candidates from the business community who might serve on the District's vending advisory group--the latest committee to wrestle with the city's vending problem. We suggested certain individuals, even though we knew the previous effort to resolve the issues had accomplished little.
Back in 1981, the board of trade was invited by the District government to participate in the 22-member mayor's task force on vending. After many months of work, but before a report could be issued, the task force was abruptly and without explanation dismissed.
As this summer progresses and the vending advisory group heads toward its Sept. 30 deadline for a report, we hope it will make a realistic assessment of vending and recommend a policy that helps the city and establishes equity in business practice.
Certainly as it exists today, vending has deviated substantially from the original concept--that is, providing an opportunity for people to establish businesses selling unique goods and services. Mass-manufactured shoes, sunglasses, T-shirts, insecticide and many other items sold now can hardly be classified as unique. We believe handcrafted goods, food for immediate consumption and cut flowers are the types of merchandise originally intended for vendor marketing.
Many of the issues come down to equity between the business practices required of fixed- location stores and those required of vendors. It hardly seems fair that, while a merchant paying rent, taxes, insurance and utilities tries to sell his or her merchandise, a vendor can sit outside that store and hawk similar merchandise with only a $15-a-year license as overhead.
Some who would sensationalize the vending issues see this as fat cats pouncing on underdogs, but that is simply not true. Many of the fixed-location stores suffering the most from the inequality are small businesses, each with only a handful of employees.
The advisory group member selected from the board of trade's recommendations, for example, owns a small, downtown bakery. Furthermore, some of the vendors on the streets are affiliated with chains operating throughout downtown and even in other major cities.
This city is harming itself by its meager effort to gather legitimate revenue from vendors. We believe a review of sales receipts would show that the city is not collecting its rightful share of tax money--money that could help pay for the services that vendors and other citizens enjoy, such as police and fire protection, street maintenance and public transit.
The board of trade believes vendors have an obligation, through rental fees, to pay for the public space they use. This revenue could, like real estate taxes paid by fixed- location businesses, be applied to the cost of District services.
The D.C. government should be more diligent in enforcing consumer protection laws. Practices required of all businesses including vendors, such as issuing receipts for merchandise and offering clearly stated refund policies, should be vigorously maintained.
We are also concerned about the proliferation of vendors operating in the city. More than a dozen vendors, for example, set up each day on the one-half block of K Street between Vermont Avenue and 15th Street. At a roundtable held by council members Charlene Drew Jarvis and H. R. Crawford a few weeks ago, several business people from the Connecticut Avenue, K Street and Vermont Avenue area were justifiably upset about the scene in front of their stores. They described sidewalks so clogged with vendors that pedestrians had to navigate the sidewalks, where possible, at great risk.
Understandably, the businesses are suffering along with the pedestrians. To avoid such congestion--and it exists in more than one area of downtown--the District ought to study New York's policy of setting a quota on the number of vending licenses issued in a season. Vending, when conducted sensibly, has the ability to add to the ambience of city life while providing business opportunities for its residents. Present vending practice, however, is beginning to detract from the city's ambiance, draw off the city's resources and hurt the city's economy. The District should return to a vending policy that is fair to its people, consumers and all businesses--and then, most important, enforce that policy.