Sunday, December 24, 2006

City moves to ban vending in Plaza

City moves to ban vending in Plaza

Publication Date: 12/23/06

The Plaza de la Constitucion has served as a commercial space for more than 400 years, but St. Augustine city commissioners decided Friday that they want all commercial vendors out.

But many people selling goods there -- jewelry, sunglasses, posters, watches , knives and handbags -- said they were outraged that no one knew this was coming.

At a special meeting in City Hall Friday morning, Commissioner Susan Burk added this item just seconds before Mayor Joe Boles pounded the gavel to adjourn.

Burk said the Nights of Lights event was ruined by vendors and that they "totally destroy the (Plaza's) ambiance. It's become an ugly flea market," she said.

Other commissioners said they had also received complaints from city residents about the Plaza's appearance and the effect that the lower-priced vendors were having on St. George Street businesses.

On Burk's motion, the City Commission voted 5-0 to suspend issuance of all further vendor permits. That means a vendor can stay in the Plaza until his or her permit expires but none will be renewed. Most expire Dec. 31.

David Scandaliato, who sells wooden Christmas ornaments for his brother-in-law's shop in town, said he's been selling there for a year.

"Why, all of a sudden, are they doing this now?" he said. "The city is dancing to the merchants' tune."

The commission made clear that anyone expressing their First Amendment rights of free or artistic expression, such as painters, dancers, musicians or photographers, are not bound by a need for a permit.

Scandaliato was unfazed.

"Then the negotiation begins: What is art? Just how deep does that rabbit hole go?" he said.

Michael Arenas has been selling designer sunglasses there for four years.

"This is my bread and butter," he said. "I'm a taxpayer. For them just to cut us off is unfair. I have five months worth of inventory," he said, saying he just let his lease drop at a shop off Cordova Street. "A lot of people depend on this for a living. This is their job."

Reubin Carter of Hastings also sells sunglasses. He says tourists like to shop there.

"The same people come every year. They know us. This is a tourist attraction. The city doesn't realize that people love coming here. It will be a big loss for the city," he said.

Craftsman Maurice Vigue makes jewelry and said the moratorium is unfair.

"We work 16 hours a day," he said, adding that vendors pay for permits, the 6 percent sales tax and occupational licenses.

Javier Baron, a silversmith, said his work on the Plaza makes up a certain percentage of his income.

"This has been a market since the 1600s," he said.

When vendors buy a permit, they get no guarantee they'll get a choice space in the covered Market. It's first-come, first-served and the Market can hold only about 12 vendors.

George Skelton of Ocala, who sells watches, handbags and knives, said he'd decided to move to St. Augustine until this occurred.

"No shop on St. George Street sells watches at a reasonable price," he said. "I don't understand the logic of it. The snowbirds come down after the holidays and January through March is the main season for us. They could have at least given us a chance to make other arrangements."

Capri Porter has been selling natural foods for 20 years and has a kiosk at A1A Ale Works. She'd been at the Market for two weeks, selling spice dips and 'Mixes From Scratch,' natural baking mixes for things like sweet potato brownies and various breads.

"For any business person starting out, this is a prime way of getting your name out in the city," she said. "There should be more regulations, so it doesn't look like a flea market."

Another vendor, James Fasanello, who recently moved here from New York City, said this was just his second day there. He'd worked at the World Trade Center until the Sept. 11 disaster, he said.

"I'm not going to be that worried about it," he said. "(But) I've got a garage full of stuff."

He lowered all his prices and gave away items to children just to get rid of them.

Commissioner Errol Jones, who originally presented the idea to stop issuing more permits after Burk said she wanted to revoke the existing ones, said the entire commission realized that the Plaza was in "disarray" and that things had to change.

"The Plaza's in horrible shape," he said. "It's a matter of policing. This (moratorium on permits) will allow us to take a breath."

At the Nights of Lights opening event in November, vendors "were all over the place," Jones said.

For his first assignment, newly appointed City Attorney Ron Brown said he would look into the commission's options, such as withdrawing the existing vendor ordinance.

This will be addressed at the Jan. 8 City Commission meeting.

Vice Mayor Don Crichlow said that, on the one hand, "The majority of citizens of this town and the majority of tourists will say that (vendors on the Plaza) is truly a negative thing." On the other, he said, "We're going to get some flak from this."

Click here to return to story:

© The St. Augustine Record

No comments: