Mobile vendors collaborating with city officials on pilot program, potential ordinance

Local Burrito
Kyle Sieck’s Local Burrito — photo via the Mobile Vending Association of Iowa City

Foodies take note: Food trucks and trailers may soon play a more prominent role in the Iowa City food scene. City officials are collaborating with local vendors on a mobile vending pilot project, set to take place this summer, that may pave the way for a city ordinance.

The pilot program is expected to last about 120 days, according to Mobile Vending Association of Iowa City member Rockne Cole, though details are still tentative. The program could involve up to three different locations — the Eastside Recycling Center, the Chauncey Swan parking ramp and City Park — wherein mobile vendors will be able to operate a couple of days per week throughout the trial period.

Though it operates in a different context, the Mobile Vending Association says they have looked to the success of the Iowa City Farmers Market as a sort of test case for how mobile vendors might utilize space throughout Iowa City.

As far as which mobile vendors will receive permits for the pilot program, Cole said an open lottery system may be implemented, though the selection process is still up for discussion.

“If it works, and we get some good momentum, and we’re able to make some money and the neighbors don’t object too much, then we’d like to then take the next step, which would be adopting essentially a model food truck ordinance,” Cole said at a public meeting at the Iowa City Public Library on April 28.

“Of course, with an ordinance change, they’ll have a rule-making process to ensure they have vendors of good moral character, to ensure the numbers make sense and ensure that it’ll be regulated so it’ll be able to integrate with the flow of the city,” Cole said. “And that’s why I think the farmer’s market makes so much sense. It’s this huge, dynamic market that essentially doesn’t really affect the city in an adverse way. It essentially takes away parking on a Saturday morning and in exchange you get a vibrant market. So we think that’s a good concept to work with.”

The rise of mobile vending is cause for concern among some Iowa City stakeholders, particularly restaurant owners. The Mobile Vending Association says it is aware of these concerns, however, and feels that its expansion could be mutually beneficial for both brick and mortar restaurants and mobile vendors alike.

“You know, we’re not getting a lot of people on the record to go against what we’re doing,” Cole said. “We’re getting a lot of people talking in sotto voce to the city.”

Cole says it’s important to pay deference to brick and mortar restaurants, and say his organization has been communicating with Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird and assistant city manager Geoff Fruin to help assuage concern.

“We do agree that the fact that they pay higher taxes means we need to make sure that they’re successful,” Cole said. “We just don’t see us as having the numbers to make a real significant dent in their business … we’ll be in areas that aren’t directly competing with the brick and mortars.”

The notion that mobile vendors are, or could be, a nuisance is not unique to Iowa City, of course. The arrival of food trucks has led to an ongoing regulations debate in cities across the country. It’s a controversy of which the Mobile Vending Association is keenly aware.

“Where we’re getting this feedback is, frankly, with interaction with city officials. They bring up concerns that we’re really not thinking of doing, you know, taking up a whole city block full of trucks [for example], destroying the local restaurant scene. I mean that’s just not something that’s on the radar”

Kyle Sieck of Local Burrito echoed Cole’s sentiments at the meeting, noting that it’s not the associations intention to directly compete with other restaurants. Rather, they want to be seen as a community asset and not some kind of “pest.”

“We feel like we can contribute to the downtown area and not detract from it,” echoed Chris George of Box Lunch. “We do not expect, nor do we want … food trucks lining the road,”

This isn’t the first time city officials and business owners have balked at the notion of expanding Iowa City’s vending operations, Cole says. The al fresco dining spots that dot the sidewalks and ped mall of Iowa City were also, at one point, cause for heated discussion.

“Originally, there was concern over public access and that students would get beer over the fence,” Cole said. “Those took a while to really develop, and now they’re essential to downtown. People would complain if they were taken away, so that’s why we sort of view this as — a continuing step in that innovation.”

Granted, the rise in mobile vending may carry unintended consequences that the Mobile Vending Association is not taking into account, Cole admits.

“That’s why I wanted to do the pilot project,” he said.

The next meeting between the Mobile Vending Association of Iowa City and city officials is slated for Tuesday, May 6.

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