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Editorial: Food carts bring vibrancy to town center

Food carts, which have been making inroads in commercial areas of cities across the United States, have pulled up in Amherst and some restaurants are miffed.

In fact, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District issued a joint statement saying the four vendors, which prepare and sell meals downtown, have an unfair advantage over businesses paying rent in the town center. The statement calls that unacceptable, asking town officials to address the issue.

Select Board chair Stephanie O’Keeffe sat down with Chamber director Tony Maroulis and Alex Krogh-Grabbe of the BID recently and as a result will propose new regulations to fellow board members this month.

We hope they don’t bend to pressure and make life difficult for these entrepreneurs.

Competition is healthy and the vendors in question mostly offer foods that differ from the fare available in the restaurants — gyros, barbecue, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs. They add a festive flare that helps make the town center more vibrant, something Krogh-Grabbe has been talking about since his organization got started last spring.

But already some businesses are suspected of monitoring Paris Valley, reporting the time her barbecue cart takes up two parking spaces near the Town Common. Motorists are not allowed to feed meters to spend longer than two hours in a spot and Valley finds parking enforcement officerse arriving like clockwork to tell her to move on. She has to find another two spaces or go home.

That’s not at all in the spirit of the permission the Select Board granted Valley to do business downtown. She has asked the Select Board to allow her to pay to place bags over the meters for the two places she takes up, but the board has not responded. We hope the answer is yes so that she can operate unencumbered.

Maroulis and Krogh-Grabbe asked O’Keeffe to impose “buffer zones” to protect restaurants from Valley and the other food cart vendors. They want to see them limited to areas near the downtown parks, Sweetser or Kendrick, or east of the Town Common. Maroulis told reporter Scott Merzbach that O’Keeffe was receptive to his idea.

O’Keeffe said she wants to find the right balance of location and timing. She said she wants to promote new food options downtown while ensuring other restaurants don’t suffer as a result. That sounds fair.

Two of the vendors, Valley and Gail McLaughlin-Toti, who sells grilled cheese sandwiches, already set up near the commons and a park. New York Halal Food does business on the sidewalk in front of the Unitarian Universalist Church on North Pleasant Street. Although nearer to restaurants than the other two, co-owners Elsayed Abdelglil and Ahmad Elsayed say they are not in anyone’s way, even with the long lines of customers they attract.

Maroulis says food carts are a trend that is growing and he wants to see the town devise a policy before the numbers increase. O’Keeffe said she wants to draft regulations and then get feedback from the business community and town inspectors and enforcers. As it stands now, vendors must pay a $125 fee for a mobile food service permit from the town health department, $100 for a Select Board lunch cart license and obtain a state hawker and peddler’s license. In their application, they have to specify their locations and times of operations. Those rules seem sufficient.

It’s wise to look at the big picture, but we think food carts should not be pushed out of downtown’s mainstream. If the numbers do get unwieldy, then a set area would be advisable. But for now, with four — only two of those regulars — it doesn’t seem warranted.

Of course, the town health department should continue being vigilant, as with all food establishments, to ensure sanitary conditions are top notch. The carts should not be allowed to create safety issues on the sidewalks or in the street and they shouldn’t impede entrance into other businesses.

Other than that, let them be. The BID’s initial efforts, throwing an autumn block party and enhancing the town center’s holiday decorations, aimed to add variety and a sense of fun downtown. The food carts can be part of it, too. Many communities would love to have such a problem.

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