Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 24, 2013

Editorial: TC can't delay decision on food trucks

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — While it may not seem like it, spring and summer are just around the corner. And if you’re considering getting into the food truck business in Traverse City this year, time is ticking.

A recent decision by the Downtown Development Authority to take up to 60 more days to arrive at a recommendation about where food trucks should be allowed puts undue pressure on those who want to do business here. The DDA has had a couple years now to come up with a recommendation; and putting it off until mid-April is simply unfair.

There are no doubt those who think the DDA’s refusal to come to a conclusion is simply a ploy to keep food trucks out of downtown for as long as possible — a tactic some restaurant owners may endorse. Whether that’s true or not, the effect is the same. And that’s no way for the city to do business.

This is not the DDA’s decsion to make. Any rules about where food trucks will be allowed to do business will be up to the city commission. But it’s incumbent on commissioners to listen to the DDA and the many restaurant owners it represents, and it would be best if the DDA could speak with one voice. But delay, delay, delay can’t be an option. As DDA member Chuck Judson put it, the question is no longer whether the city fits the trucks into downtown, but how.

Many restaurant owners are leery of allowing food trucks to set up shop here. They worry about the new competition and complain that food truck owners don’t face the kinds of fixed costs that year-round, brick-and-mortar eateries do.

Those are legitimate concerns. But food trucks have been around for a long time in other communities without creating a restaurant meltdown. It will be up to the city to create a fair fee system for food trucks that helps even things up without being punitive.

The prime question now is where.

The DDA rejected a proposal by members John Di Giacomo and Leah McCallum-Bagdon to allow mobile food units anywhere downtown, except along Front Street between Boardman and Union, and within 20 feet of any intersection. That seemed too good a start to be rejected out of hand.

City commissioner Jim Carruthers, who chairs a City Commission committee studying the food truck issue, said alternative locations to the main business district could be possible — such as Pine Street, East State and East Front. West Front from Pine west to Division and the city lots on the north side of the Boardman River should also be considered, as should some downtown alleys.

The food truck movement would seem to be right at home in Traverse City, which is gaining a national reputation as a foodie haven and is home to a number of top-flight restaurants offering new, eclectic menus.

The city must decide details, and soon. Dozens of other communities across the country have had food trucks — and, presumably, food truck ordinances — for years, so the city is not breaking new ground.

Setting a fair fee structure will be key. Food trucks can’t pay so little that they have an unfair advantage over established restaurants, but not so much that they can’t make a profit. Dozens of cities across the country have long dealt with food trucks, so there’s no need to create something out of thin air. The city has been gathering data from other cities; it shoule build from there.

More delays are unacceptable. There are people who want to bring new food ideas to a hungry community, just as there have always been; these just happen to do business out of a truck. It’s up to the city to make room for them.