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Food truck battle far from over in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's battle over food trucks rages on.

As city leaders contemplate changing rules to allow food trucks to operate downtown, the city's eight council members could reach no consensus Thursday on how to deal with one of the nation's hottest food crazes.

"We need more information," council member Bill Dudley said. "I don't think anyone is against food trucks. I just think we need to make sure it's done right."

"Downtown is thriving with the brick and mortar restaurants as we have them," said council member Jim Kennedy. "I don't see how food trucks contribute at all."

"We want to make sure we're fair to both sides," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "We don't want our message to be, 'If you're unwilling to invest in brick and mortar you can forget it.' "

While the mobile food phenomenon has taken off around the Tampa Bay area, food trucks are virtually barred from serving pedestrians in downtown St. Petersburg unless it's a special event.

At Thursday's committee meeting, city staffers outlined several options the council could consider to regulate food trucks.

The city could allow food trucks to operate downtown in the right of way; limit food trucks to parking alongside city parks; grant property owners the ability to allow trucks on their lots or in front of their businesses; or keep the current ban intact.

Several council members expressed an interest in regulating food trucks by setting strict hours of operation, mandating permits and restricting how close vendors could be to restaurants or city-sponsored events.

The question of fairness came up several times.

On one side, was the question of what's fair to restaurants.

Kennedy echoed the view of many restaurateurs, saying food trucks are at an advantage due to their mobility and exemption from certain fees, such as property taxes. Competition among restaurants already is fierce, restaurant owners say.

On the other side, several food truck owners and advocates said few of the city's recommendations seemed fair to them.

"If they really wanted to level the playing field," said Sam Dudding, of the Fire Monkey food truck, "they would have to take away the roof, the walls, the tables, the chairs, the servers, the bathrooms, any kind of climate control and the alcohol from all of the restaurants."

Dudley warned that the city won't be seeking to perfectly balance the needs of food trucks and restaurants. Property taxpayers will have the advantage, he said. The question will be: How much of an advantage?

"It won't be equal," Dudley said. "We need to make sure the (restaurants) are not suffering."

Neither side was allowed to plead its case during Thursday's committee meeting, but affected parties will be allowed to speak at a March 22 workshop on the issue.

Food truck and pushcart vendors recently formed their own group, the Tampa Bay Mobile Food Vending Alliance, with the goal of helping the city understand how they contribute to the community.

"No one can afford to have food shipped in, so we all buy local," said truck owner Mark Thompson. "It takes a community of support for a local food truck to survive."

Representatives from the Institute for Justice, a self-described "libertarian public-interest law firm" that has taken on the fight for mobile vendors around the country, plan to attend the workshop.

For the law firm, the issue is not of fairness, but of legality.

"Making a balanced and fair playing field for businesses is not a function of government," said attorney Claudia Murray. "You can't tell a Burger King that it can't set up next to a McDonald's, just like you can't tell a food truck they can't set up in front of a restaurant."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Food truck battle far from over in St. Petersburg 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 9:58pm]

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