Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

St. Petersburg's ham-fisted response to food trucks

Dr. David McKalip's office in St. Petersburg is trimmed in red and blue. He designated the adjacent vacant lot on the southwest corner of Fourth Street and 62nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg as Founders Corner. Four 6-foot-tall granite and limestone monuments sit at the lot's edge with labels such as "individual liberty'' and "free markets.''

Now McKalip has added another marker to reflect those values: a bright yellow 1988 Chevy panel truck with red letters announcing, "The King's Bistro."

Welcome to the latest front in St. Petersburg's battle over food trucks, where a delicious Italian sausage sub is cooked to order for six bucks.

Food trucks are all the rage in vibrant cities. In St. Petersburg, they are one more common fixture of urban life that City Hall can't figure out.

First, the zoning department indicated late last year that food truck rallies were not permitted within the city. Then it turned out food trucks are allowed at least in parts of the city and in other parts by a temporary permit, but not downtown. The City Council has spent hours discussing the issue. The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce has jumped into the food fight on behalf of downtown restaurants that feel threatened. Negotiations with the new Tampa Bay Mobile Food Vending Alliance are under way, and lawyers are hovering.

It's exactly the sort of avoidable mess that gives government a bad name and provides an easy opportunity for extreme conservatives such as McKalip to complain about overregulation.

The neurosurgeon popped up on the radar as a strident critic of President Barack Obama's health care reform. He's a tea party guy and an unbowed Ron Paul supporter, and he acknowledges he's outside the Republican mainstream. He's waging an ill-advised battle against FAST, an interfaith group that has made a positive contribution to the discussion of local education and criminal justice issues. McKalip has concluded FAST is too liberal and is questioning the group's origins and its finances.

Now McKalip has taken up the food truck fight, and in this case he has a valid point.

He first met Gladys Vega and Angel Cintron as they were buying propane for their food truck at the gas station across the street from his office. McKalip invited them to set up on his vacant lot, and they tried to explain St. Petersburg's convoluted process.

"He didn't want to hear it,'' Vega recalled. "He said, "This is my land. Why can't I do what I want?' "

McKalip complains it took a month to get the permit, which allows The King's Bistro to park on his grassy lot for just two weeks. Initially, the city would not allow McKalip to get another temporary permit for anything else on the lot for six months. He complained, and the city amended the agreement to just no more permits for food trucks for six months.

That's ridiculous, and it did not satisfy the doctor. Predictably, he has called Mayor Bill Foster and is threatening to sue the city. It's a safe bet this episode will figure prominently in McKalip's campaign for City Council next year.

Vega, 49, and Cintron, 56, are not interested in a confrontation with the city. The Shore Acres residents just want to be able to work in their hometown instead of always driving to Tampa, where no special permits are needed for food trucks on private property. They invested about $30,000 in the truck and equipment about two years ago, and they have built a small following in Hillsborough. But St. Petersburg was off-limits.

For months, Cintron would regularly visit city permitting officials and politely plead his case. First he was told food trucks were not permitted, only hot dog carts. He got permission from property owners to park on a vacant lot on Central Avenue and then on a car lot. Both times, the city said no.

"We are pretty much on a first-name basis. He sees me and he knows what I want,'' said Cintron of one city worker in planning and economic development. "He's a nice guy. Some guys sit behind a desk and make it impossible. He did not.''

Finally, Vega and Cintron got their temporary permit for McKalip's Founders Corner. That permit expires this week, and it's the only one for a food truck in St. Petersburg. The King's Bistro will head back to Tampa, McKalip will keep fighting and City Hall will keep dithering.

Tampa, Orlando and other cities have figured out how to accommodate food trucks and draw more people downtown. In St. Petersburg, even the little things are never easy.

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