There’s no fairness in a single ruling party, no matter what your party.

“We wrote this law for the primary purpose of preventing lawsuits or being sued…It is not the City’s job to promote a healthy business climate.”

-Columbus City Councilmember Michelle Mills regarding her proposed food truck legislation

Two years ago, the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and the Central Ohio Food Truck Association believed changes to the current food truck code were necessary to support our industry and to support a vibrant downtown.

We saw relations between brick and mortar and food truck businesses deteriorate in other cities and being from the same industry, we worked to avoid that. We saw this as an opportunity to be a shining example of bricks and mortars, food trucks, and the city working together to create innovative and smart public policy that benefits all of Central Ohio.

For the next two years, CORA/COFTA met together regularly drafting recommendations and ideas that supported each other’s industries, promoted a safer and more vibrant Columbus, and contributed to the economic vitality of Columbus.

Our mission wasn’t focused solely on avoiding lawsuits, it was to contribute more fully to a more vibrant, prosperous, smart, and open Columbus, something I’d thought Columbus City Council also cared about.

We met with each member of Columbus City Council briefing them on our ongoing meetings and asking for a seat at the table as stakeholders and partners whenever legislation related to our industry was going to be drafted or proposed. Each Councilmember assured us that we would be. We continued to meet and send Councilmembers our recommendations.

In June 2013, despite our continued requests to be at the table for any proposals, CORA and COFTA first learned of Councilmember Mills food truck pilot program when we read about it in the Columbus Dispatch. Not one member of Council or Councilmember Mills thought to reach out to the very industry they wished to regulate. None of our recommendations acquired via endless stakeholder meetings with neighborhood, civic, and business associations were included in the pilot program that was unanimously approved by Columbus City Council with minimal comments.
The members of council acknowledged first learning of the pilot in the newspaper as well. Mills maintains she’d kept CORA/COFTA informed, no one in CORA of COFTA is aware of her ‘outreach.’

The pilot allowed for 30 food trucks in the public right of way. We requested that the City not add yet another sign to confuse metered parking on the street and instead mark each meter that could be used for food trucks with a sticker or some other signal to the food trucks and meter attendants. Days later, against repeated neighborhood requests and assurances that signs would not go up, signs went up, confusing visitors for the past year.

Very few food trucks signed up for the pilot (5 total) so nearly 30 valuable parking spaces went unused and visitors left the spaces alone assuming they’d be towed for parking in the designated and very well marked food truck parking spaces. The pilot was a failure and CORA and COFTA and our most popular downtown neighborhoods were understandably pissed off.

Neighborhood/businesses associations watched as the valuable designated meter spots remain empty in heavily congested areas due to the confusing signs placed by the City indicating the spaces were ‘food truck’ spaces from 6am-3am.

Last night Mills held a hearing for round two of her pilot. She was dismissive towards the very real concerns expressed by taxpayers and members of the second largest private sector employer and largest employer of women and minorities in management positions in the state.

At the end of the ‘hearing,’ Mills threatened the food truck community by offering to end discussion now, keep current code intact, and/or further stall discussion. The old adage about most electeds never having to worry about making a payroll or keep the electric on at their own places of business was obvious last night.

Council chambers were filled with my closest industry peers and neighborhood and civic groups all opposing the proposed legislation as written.

Rick Harrison Wolfe of the North Market was one of the few folks in favor of the proposal, which was odd given that all adjacent neighborhood groups (Short North Alliance and Downtown SID plus the food truck community) were opposed. Other than him, the only other persons in support of the proposal was a citizen of Columbus who said he was there because he loves food trucks and an obviously (and sadly) uninformed member of the Clintonville Area Commission.

Opposing Mills proposal as written: the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and Central Ohio Food Truck Association. The Short North Alliance, the Downtown SID, the Discovery District SID , downtown property owners, multiple small businesses, industry leaders, and others expressed concerns with the plan as written too.

It’s important to note that Mills publicly pitted CORA and COFTA against one another in comments she’s made to press. In fact, both organizations remain allies and peers who issued joint recommendations to her all along and joined forces long before her proposal a year ago. I made sure to note this on record last night during my comments. Divide and conquer won’t work in my industry.

I expect a vote this Monday or next Monday. During my testimony, I asked Mills when she planned to put this to vote and she began giving me the timeline of our work to date but no answer to my question. Changing the City code should be done carefully, thoughtfully, and should engage as many invested stakeholders as possible. When Council chambers are full of stakeholders opposed to your plan, it’s time to go back and rewrite your proposal.

More from Dan Eaton, longtime restaurant reporter at Biz First: http://www.bizjournals.com/columbus/blog/2014/02/food-truck-operators-pepper-columbus.html

9 thoughts on “‘Midwest nice’ is code for thin skinned.

  1. I watched this on T V. I could not believe she was so hostile to people who have created jobs and brought excitement to the city if Columbus.

    I heard her repeat over and over that it was her job to protect “the citizens health and safety”. During the recent explosion of food trucks in Columbus that has brought national and international acclaim to Columbus were any citizens hurt by the changes?
    In response to a question by a food trailor owner about the effect of these regulations and surrounding communities she commented that she “could only run one city at a time.”
    Everyone who spoke was careful to be polite and they thanked her for her efforts. She shocked me when she spoke so hatefully about these people who I know to be working so hard to bring to the people of Columbus a new way to experience delicious and safely prepared food.
    To include private property in her regulations seems an over reach of government. The video of last night’s meeting should be posted in its entirety so the citizens of Columbus can see it.

    • Just an FYI, private property is not included in this legislation. It has been established to regulate the operation of food trucks in the public right-of-way.

    • Thanks, Linda, for your comments. You couldn’t see from the television but Council chambers were filled last night. More folks had come to testify but the 5pm cut off for speaker slips made that impossible for us working stiffs. The hostility was felt by everyone in the room, most left angry.

      • The cut off time for speaker slips was 5:30. They made that announcement several times, and accepted stacks of slips right up until the deadline.

  2. This is disturbing to say the least. As the adult version of one of the weird kids, I started fantasizing about a quality street vending food business from my cubicle 15 years ago, discussed dozens of possible concepts for over a decade, have a mobile food business plan in development for over a year, and weeks away from custom fabrication of my first cart.

    This bush-league beaurocrat believes her acquired title gives her the authority to legislate from the hip without complete information about the market and disregards implications for the community. Perhaps she is taking her cues from a source known more for its share price. Whatever her motives, there is empirical data that has proven happier towns have greater numbers of niche and creative businesses. You can get a chain burger anywhere. Visiting Paris or Minneapolis or Savannah does not usually conjure images of Wendy’s french fries or a warmed over breakfast at Bob Evans. But it seems Miss Mills would have your experience in Columbus in a paper box that anyone can forget the minute they leave the pub, theatre, or taxi.

    Portland, Oregon has over 500 licensed mobile food businesses. The approach of that city’s administration is ‘hands off’ and ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Surface parking lots rent perimeter spaces to food carts and stands because A) parking lots are ugly, B) they’re making more money than from parked cars, and C) the people love the variety of offerings from these vendors. Miss Mills will have to find her creative thinking cap or we will find someone who has one handy. The Coleman administration is not a foregone conclusion and neither is the City Council.

    • Scoob, I have a chef pal who was poised to launch a new food truck this summer here in Columbus. She’s opted to open up shop elsewhere, citing the failures of our city govt to allow a healthy climate for businesses like hers to thrive. So much for smart and open. Our loss is Philly’s gain.

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