Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file
A food truck festival held downtown in September drew big crowds.
After mounting a last-minute effort to kill a local ordinance allowing up to six food trucks to operate in the bus bays around City Hall on Thursdays, downtown restaurant owners got the chance to air their grievances last week in front of the committee that wrote the proposed law.
Many restaurateurs had legitimate concerns about food trucks operating on a level playing field with sit-down establishments. “Let me tell you, it’s difficult with the competition that’s here,” said Pouch co-owner Dave Malcher. “We struggle to carry on, and it’s just more competition being brought in.”
While food trucks do operate with lower overhead (which is what makes them attractive to entry-level entrepreneurs), and they’re getting a good deal on those parking spaces with a fee of $200 or $252, depending on whether they’re licensed in Athens, they have some disadvantages too, like a requirement to build costly dump stations for food waste and an inability to sell alcohol. “We are just as regulated, if not more highly regulated [by the health department] as the brick-and-mortar restaurants,” said Kona Ice truck owner Ted Thompson.
Amidst some valid questions and concerns, though, were other, more hysterical complaints—for example, Wilson Elder, who’s not in the restaurant business but commented nonetheless, said food trucks will “kill downtown.”
“I can envision food trucks and a carnival atmosphere with cotton candy and a Ferris wheel,” he said. (That doesn’t sound so bad to me!)
Commissioner Mike Hamby—sounding like he’s planning on riding a food truck right into the mayor’s office in three years—passionately defended easing restrictions on mobile eateries, noting that people predicted that the indoor smoking ban and raising parking rates would kill downtown, too. “If we’re trying to kill downtown, we’re doing a horrible job of it,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do is create an opportunity to enliven downtown just a little bit more, and it’ll benefit everybody downtown,” Hamby added.
Commissioner Andy Herod, the committee chairman, acknowledged that, if he were a restaurant owner, he might feel the same way. But ultimately, the commissioners’ job isn’t to protect a certain class of business owner; it’s to do what they think is best for Athens as a whole. And none of the commissioners present—Herod, Hamby, Jerry NeSmith and Diane Bell—said they heard anything to change their minds. It’s a conversation Athens (which previously considered allowing food trucks on public property in 2010) and cities all over the country have already had, NeSmith said.
Committee members did bow to one concern, though. Restaurant owners were miffed that the city is experimenting with food trucks potentially on their dime. “You talk about, ‘Wait a year and see what happens,’” Paul DeGeorge said. “That’s at our expense.” To appease them, commissioners said that, instead of reviewing the ordinance in a year with an eye to whether it should be repealed, they want to insert a sunset provision so that it will have to be reauthorized instead. That’s an important distinction, because it’ll be easier to kill the ordinance if commissioners have to vote to keep it rather than vote to get rid of it.
Meanwhile, Downtown Athens Business Association President Jennifer Zwirn said she intends to ask Mayor Nancy Denson to form a committee of restaurant owners and retailers to further examine the ordinance. Further delaying tactics seem futile, though, as the commission seems poised to approve the ordinance Nov. 3.
Ultimately, I doubt food trucks will affect brick-and-mortar restaurants much one way or the other. Six food trucks parking at City Hall one day a week is the equivalent of one new restaurant opening downtown. Any evidence either way will be circumstantial at best, so don’t expect this debate to go away anytime soon.
Photo Credit: Jeff Montgomery
Sewer Service: As we mentioned a couple weeks ago, ACC officials are in the midst of a five-year update of the Public Utilities Department’s Service Delivery Plan. (Try to contain your excitement.)
As in past updates, there’s at least one controversial component: plans to possibly extend sewer lines into the environmentally sensitive Sandy Creek basin in northeastern Athens and Shoal Creek basin in southeastern Athens. While those areas are home to thousands of aging septic tanks that might be about to fail, environmentalists are once again worried about the environmental impact of sewer lines.
“If water mains leak, sewer mains leak. It’s a fact of life,” said Kyle McKay of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network, referencing the recent water-main break off Jefferson Road that forced residents to boil drinking water for five days. Plus, development tends to follow sewer lines. In addition to UOWN, the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission also asked for a study on alternatives to sewer.
In this update, though, utility officials are far less zealous about new sewer lines than they were in 2010, Commissioner Kelly Girtz said at the Oct. 20 agenda-setting meeting. For example, the report lists septic-tank clusters as an alternative to traditional sewer lines. “I just want to put out there that I sense a very different slant to this service delivery plan,” Girtz said.
Partner Benefits: Commissioners are also considering a proposal to repeal domestic partner benefits for county employees in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The ACC government is self-insured, and the Affordable Care Act requirement that pre-existing conditions must be covered has some officials worried the policy might be abused.
The policy, passed in 2006, was intended to give employees in same-sex relationships who couldn’t marry the same benefits as married couples. Few took advantage of it, though—currently, eight employees are registered, and six of them are unmarried with partners of the opposite sex.
Several commissioners, though, said they’re inclined to keep the policy in place because they want to preserve benefits for employees who, for whatever reason, are in committed relationships but not married. A vote’s scheduled for Nov. 3.