Traverse City commissioners will consider relaxing the city’s rules to allow food trucks and mobile vending in city parks during special events.
The move – which will be discussed during a 7pm study session Monday at the Governmental Center – would rewrite the city’s existing policy, which bans food trucks in all city parks unless special permission is granted by the city commission. Until last month, the only cases in which that permission has been granted in the five years since Traverse City’s food truck policy was written have been to the National Cherry Festival and Traverse City Film Festival, which have special event contracts with the city. In November, Up North Pride became the third organization to receive permission for mobile vending after seeking and receiving approval to host food trucks at a public celebration in the Open Space June 22.
The commission’s approval of that request prompted discussion among commissioners about whether the city’s policy should be changed to allow all event organizers equal access to hosting food trucks in public parks. According to City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, “quite a few” other event organizers have expressed interest in having food trucks at their festivals and events, but have decided against it after learning they’d have to go through a city commission approval process. “If we (give approval) now, you better get ready to do it for everybody,” Lewis said at the November 5 meeting regarding Up North Pride’s request. “Right now we have an ordinance that says no. Why don’t we just change the ordinance?”
Other commissioners agreed, noting the climate and discussion around food trucks has changed considerably in Traverse City since 2013, when the city’s decision to allow mobile vending in some areas (including all private property and a handful of city streets) faced considerable backlash. Restaurant owners worried food trucks didn’t have to follow the same rules as brick-and-mortar establishments and would cut into their business, while other critics expressed concern about the aesthetics and location of trucks. Since the ordinance was passed, numerous food trucks have successfully operated in Traverse City, notably at The Little Fleet parking lot and at festivals and events on private property, such as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. When Commissioner Michele Howard questioned why past commissioners banned food trucks from public parks, Lewis joked: “They used to be evil.”
“And I don’t think they are anymore,” he continued, “but it opens up a can of worms that I think (Marentette) is going to have to deal with (by only allowing trucks at some events). How do you say no? You can’t say no any longer.”
Marentette agrees the climate around food trucks has changed and says he supports revisiting the policy for mobile vending during park events. “I think a lot of folks I heard from who were the most vocal about concerns when we initially developed the rules have come back and said it all worked out well,” Marentette says. The proposed change would not allow food trucks or mobile vending in city parks at all times, but rather only during special events. Food trucks would have to pay for a more expensive city permit to operate in public parks: An annual permit to vend exclusively on private property, like The Little Fleet, is $725, while a permit that additionally allows for vending on public property is $1,225. Event organizers would also have to coordinate with city staff on the location and placement of trucks in parks during events.
“We’re always looking at the impact on the natural space, so there might be extra measures put in place, like weight distribution mats, to make sure there’s not sinking or any issues with structural integrity,” Marentette says, noting that other types of heavy trucks are currently allowed in parks during events as part of set-up crews. “None of those concerns are difficult to address or would be onerous. I would welcome the change.”
Allowing food trucks and mobile vending provides not just an amenity but also a potential safety benefit for attendees at events featuring alcohol, Marentette notes. “Frankly, when beer or wine are served, providing for a convenient food option not only provides a nice pairing but also would mean that people aren’t just consuming alcohol with no food,” he wrote in a memo to commissioners.
The new policy, if approved, would likely not impact smaller neighborhood parks but only those larger city parks at which special events take place. Those would include the Open Space, Clinch Park, F&M Park, Hull Park, and potentially Bryant Park for smaller-scale events, according to Marentette.