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Iowa City Council passes food truck pilot, voices support for UI graduate student union

Posted by Emma Husar | Feb 8, 2017 | Community/News
City Hall
City Hall

Photo by Drew Bulman

Collective bargaining rights and food trucks featured at Tuesday night’s Iowa City Council meeting, as plans for a food truck pilot program moved forward and representatives from the University of Iowa’s Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) sought the council’s support of collective bargaining and union benefits following legislation introduced yesterday in Des Moines.

COGS

Two COGS representatives addressed the council, expressing their hope that the council would stand in support of graduate students should a bill be passed that could eliminate collective bargaining for Iowa public employees, including graduate students.

Following the meeting, the council decided to write a letter from Mayor Jim Throgmorton to the Iowa Legislature in support of the cause. Throgmorton will read the letter at the next city council meeting on Feb. 21.

Nik Maggos, a third-year philosophy graduate student and COGS political action chair, said he hopes that the council and Iowa City community will support their cause. A potential resolution would not prohibit the university from taking away tuition and health care benefits or limiting the union’s ability to bargain, but might influence the university to retain current benefits. COGS President Landon Elkind said after the meeting that this would be a “statement of affection and compassion; a resolution does not bind any hands.”

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Elkind said he is a contributing member of the Iowa City community, but if this bill passes he is not certain he would be able to find a job that would allow him to continue to give back to the Iowa City community. Since Iowa already experiences brain drain, students leaving Iowa after getting an Iowa education, this would only exacerbate the problem, he said.

Food Truck Pilot

The council approved a three-month-long food truck vending pilot to test the feasibility of food truck vending downtown. The pilot was previously discussed back in November. During Tuesday’s meeting, the proposed food vending locations, all more than 150 feet away from any permanent establishment, were announced:

  • North Clinton Street near university dorms in April
  • Robert A. Lee parking lot in May
  • Dubuque Street beneath the Biology Building bridge for three weeks in June

There will be a kick-off event on March 31 featuring six trucks in the Robert A. Lee parking lot. The pilot permits business between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays only. Following the pilot period the city council, brick and mortar establishments and food truck vendors will discuss whether or not they will continue to permit mobile vending in the proposed locations.

James Wachutka, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, serves a customer. photo by Zak Neumann

James Wachutka, co-owner of Flip N’ Chop, serves a customer. — photo by Zak Neumann

During the Jan. 17 council meeting, on the first reading of the pilot program ordinance, Nick Craig, owner of Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar (209 N Linn St.) expressed concern about fairness. Craig said the struggle brick and mortar restaurants experience in Iowa City, including high rent prices and regulations, is forbidding compared to that of food truck vendors, whose expenses are the cost of parking on top of a yearly permit of $1,000. To start up his business, Craig sold his house, and is now living in the back of Brix.

“You’ve got to invest a lot of money and time. Regardless of anything that happens you have to be there,” Craig said. “I am worried that someone else will take my business when I am closed.”

Barry Nelson, vice president of operations at Pancheros Mexican Grill, came to city hall last night and echoed Craig’s concerns.

“It is easy to think without the benefit of retrospect or history that the level of success downtown restaurants have has been here since day one,” Nelson said. “But it has not. The success of these businesses was hard and a long time coming. Brick and mortar have taken great deal of personal risk, invested a great deal of money.”

Council member Rockne Cole said his support cannot be guaranteed until after the pilot period is over and council members are able to get feedback from both sides of the discussion. Mayor Pro Tem Kingsley Botchway gave his support, saying that the program promotes entrepreneurial endeavors and a unique street culture that he would like to see grow in Iowa City.

Concert goers line up to get a bite from the Don Diego, Island Vybes and Marco's food trucks. Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. -- photo by Zak Neumann

Concert goers line up to get a bite from the Don Diego, Island Vybes and Marco’s food trucks. Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.. — photo by Zak Neumann

The pilot program received unanimous approval from the council, with most members saying they were interested in testing how the city reacts to new food trucks. The Robert A. Lee parking lot location was a particularly popular option, with council members and food truck owners saying the location offers an option for late night pedestrians to purchase food on their way home without stepping on the toes of brick and mortar establishments.

Kyle Sieck, head chef and owner of Local Burrito, bought a food truck nine years ago and has been mostly limited to setting up at farmers’ markets. He said he wants to promote food trucks in the community.

“I truly believe [food trucks] can address underserved areas,” Sieck said.

Areas such as the university dorms do not yet have a place to buy food at night, he said, adding that he was also excited about a potential late night scene in the Robert A. Lee parking lot. He said the location might encourage “dynamic, non-alcoholic events at night modeled after Cedar Rapids’ late night farmers’ market.”

For some business owners, food trucks can be a springboard to opening up brick and mortar locations of their own. Nancy Bird, the executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, cited the success of Dumpling Darling, which moved from a farmer’s market stand to claiming a place in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo City Market in 2015 and is currently working towards opening a location on Iowa City’s Iowa Avenue.

While food truck vendors hope to succeed, they reassured owners of brick and mortar establishments that they have great respect for other Iowa City small businesses and would never set up right in front of their business. Creating conflict and disrespecting people “is not what a healthy food truck environment is all about,” Sieck said.

Panhandling

The council also passed an amended solicitation and panhandling ordinance. The ordinance previously prohibited solicitation or panhandling in certain areas downtown. The move came after a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a similar ordinance violated the First Amendment. The amended ordinance does prohibit solicitation on sidewalk cafés without the café’s permission.

During the first consideration of the ordinance at the Jan. 17 city council meeting, Nicholas Theisen, of Iowa City, urged the council to repeal all ordinances against the homeless because “it makes it illegal to be poor.”

The amended ordinance passed unanimously.

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