The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Council considers mobile merchant permits


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

The locally owned and operated Boobai Thai food truck parked at the Alaska Railroad Cruise Ship Terminal last fall during the Seward Music and Arts Festival.

The Seward City Council took a new look at transient and mobile merchants at a Monday work session prompted by councilor Marianna Keil. The issue of unfair competition from mobile vendors has long had traditional businesses at odds with any proposals to accommodate them. However, a growing national and regional popularity of food trucks, especially for the sale of niche and ethnic fare, is driving the debate further into formal channels.

Another factor is the newfound success of a couple of local food trucks last summer which created a higher level of acceptance and demand in the community. Now, one of those Seward-based operators wants to see mobile vending allowed broader access throughout the community, including in the city's public areas. Also requesting access to city parking areas and park lands are merchants that sell firewood, seafood and fresh foods such as vegetables and fruit.

Councilor Dale Butts, owner of Chinooks restaurant, provided a progressive proposal for a new transient merchant permitting process that met with some approval by local food truck operator Mark Teckenbrock. Teckenbrock, who operates the Boombai Thai mobile restaurant, liked the concept of a city-issued yearly permit but also wanted to see some changes that would allow operation in areas off-limits either under the proposal, or presently under existing city code.

A requirement that mobile food vendors be restricted from the downtown area, from the small boat harbor and anywhere within 65 feet of a fixed restaurant could lock mobile operators out of any reasonable advantages to holding a permit, according to Teckenbrock. He also pointed to existing restrictions on the use of generators and street side electrical plug ins, wondering how those would be addressed in the proposal.

With new public space, such as the south harbor uplands, opened up and largely vacant, the use of those areas is up in the air. Keil voiced her preference that the uplands, now home to a set of restrooms and the Seward Mariner's Memorial, remain relatively undeveloped without fixed leases and buildings such as exist along the small boat harbor boardwalk and plaza.

Discussion of changes to the conditional use permitting of transient, or seasonal merchants, who many times employ ad-hoc or mobile structures, caused some debate over the distinctions. However, councilor Christy Terry wanted to see an administrative permitting process for mobile food vendors prioritized. Council Dave Squires echoed the sentiment that they two are separate issues. However, he said that he would like to see fixed areas set aside in the south harbor uplands for transient merchants.

Presently, transient merchants are required to obtain a conditional land use permit, which requires a public hearing through the auspices of the Planning and Zoning Commission. The Butts proposal would create an administrative process that would allow the city to issue annual permits for roving mobile food vendors under whatever terms might be agreed upon by council for those merchants.

Squires sought to narrow the discussion, asserting that the session was scheduled for modifications to transient merchant permitting, not specifically to discuss the administrative permit process introduced by Butts. However, he went on to indicate a preference to leave the process as is for transient merchants and allow mobile vendors on public property.

City of Seward Assistant Manager Ron Long inquired if the Butts proposal was specific to food vendors. He also rhetorically observed that this would be an additional layer of permitting and that transient vendor use permits would remain. Councilor Terry said that she could see where firewood sales, especially within city parks, could also make use of the proposal.

A question raised as the to demand for public space access by mobile vendors generated a laundry list of prospective users waiting in the wings. Including the use of, and definitions for, motorized vehicles, non motorized carts, mobile unit and newspaper carriers was also discussed. It was noted that pedal vehicles including food vendors might be allowed in the harbor area, with the exception of docks and floats, under the proposal.

One glaring exception to allowances for public space access may have to be addressed. Donna Glenz says that during the Fourth of July celebration, including the Mount Marathon Race, all bets are off. During that time permitting for access is offered through the Seward Chamber of Commerce. The chamber assigns vendor locations, based on seniority in some cases.

Donna Glenz said that she will bring back proposals to council for consideration after further work by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the city's Community Development department to incorporate issues and proposals raised in the work session.


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