At Monday’s public meeting this week, city council was all set to launch a pilot program that would see up to four food trucks operating downtown this summer.
The pilot program was to be launched this July, allowing between two and four food trucks to operate within designated areas of downtown for a period of eight weeks under a temporary permit, with an option to continue the pilot through September. Currently, mobile vendors of any kind can’t stay in one place on public property for more than 15 minutes without a special permit, such as those issued for events such as Canada Day or the Salmon Festival.
But although their plan was to approve only operators whose offerings would not directly compete with the brick-and-mortar restaurants in the downtown core, Coun. Ron Kerr says he went around to speak with those businesses earlier that day and was met with significant concern.
“There are 14 restaurants in the downtown core, and today I went out and canvassed a number of them,” Kerr said. “I was really surprised that of the ones that I spoke to, none of them had been approached by staff. They didn’t even understand that this was coming.
“I want to say right up front that I’m not anti-food-truck,” Kerr continued, “but I believe in supporting our local downtown restaurants and I’m concerned that this program is going to affect them negatively. Their concern is that they are going to lose restaurants – that there will be restaurants that won’t make it.”
One of the business owners’ main concerns, Kerr says, was about an uneven playing field.
“The owners of these restaurants have to pay property taxes, they have to pay rent, they have to pay rent increases, they’ve got wages going up for their employees, they have fuel subsidies on their deliveries. All of these things are affecting the existing businesses that don’t affect the food trucks,” Kerr said.
Although Coun. Colleen Evans agreed that official consultation should take place with downtown business before the implementation, she wanted to go ahead and approve the project and see it happen this summer, with their concerns taken into consideration. Another review would then happen after the completion of the pilot to gather feedback and make adjustments before deciding whether or not to continue the program.
She also said while she understands the fears of the current restaurants, she feels that additional food options downtown could actually increase the amount of business the they all receive in the long run.
“This is to activate and create new opportunities to add choice,” Evans said. “Often times what happens in communities when a food truck program is implemented, it in fact increases business in downtown restaurants,” she says, by driving more people to the downtown core to look for dining opportunities because there are more of them present.
Coun. Michele Babchuk agreed that it should move forward.
“I feel like we’re stuck between, ‘build it and they will come,’ or, ‘if you come, we will build it,’ sort of a model. This is a four-month pilot project that I’m hoping will enhance our Live Streets events and our Thursday night music in Spirit Square and will enhance our daylight saving hours and bring people downtown. If we don’t at least give it a try for one year, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. I’m not sure we’d be doing justice to the whole community if we didn’t at least give this a shot for a year.”
But Kerr wasn’t convinced.
“I feel this has been poorly conceived,” Kerr says. “I feel the intent is good, but the roll-out concerns me.”
Coun. Charlie Cornfield agreed, saying, “it’s incumbent upon us to talk to the people most potentially impacted by this and find out their views first before we implement it.”
In the end, the majority of council also agreed and it was decided that the downtown restaurant sector would be consulted and have their feedback and concerns brought back to council at the June 25 meeting for final consideration before implementation.