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HOT DOG VENDOR FINDS ALLIES

City leaders favor later hours for pushcarts, but can this seller wait?

It looks like vendor Joy McGhee might win her battle with the city to sell hot dogs downtown to late-night crowds.

The only problem is whether McGhee's business will survive long enough to taste victory.

For 13 years she made a living selling hot dogs downtown, but she says the lunchtime crowd has dried up. Then Durty Nelly's asked her to set up her cart outside the bar at night to feed hungry patrons.

For five weeks, McGhee had a lucrative new source - until she got a $200 ticket in July.

She had run afoul of an obscure city rule that says pushcarts can operate only from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., an ordinance originally created for ice cream trucks.

McGhee, 48, complained loudly, and it's paying off. City Council member Wengay Newton said he'll propose that the city allow pushcart vendors to operate until about 1:45 a.m. - on a trial basis to test the idea.

And a majority of City Council members have already told the St. Petersburg Times they're open to amending the law.

But the full council isn't set to discuss the pushcart issue until a committee meeting Sept. 17.

"Of course I'm not satisfied," McGhee said. "That's three more weeks I lose from work."

She said she can't rely on her daytime business alone anymore. Her income is falling, her bills are rising. She said the city shouldn't bar her from feeding patrons of downtown bars, which stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m.

Newton said city staff members traced the ordinance's origins all the way back to the 1960s, so maybe it is time for a change.

The city also contacted the 20 pushcart vendors licensed to operate in the city's right of way (the ordinance doesn't cover vendors who operate on private property). Newton said nine favor changing the operating times, and only one opposed it.

"I think it'll be best to do a trial to make sure there's no unintended consequences," Newton said. "You don't want to extend the ordinance permanently and find out you need more cops.

"The vendors are saying, let us earn our money. I say fine, let's let them try."

The St. Petersburg Police Department expressed concern about the security of pushcart vendors' operating in the wee hours. But the department said it hasn't officially weighed in on expanding pushcart hours. Assistant Chief Luke Williams said officers will enforce whatever the city decides.

This whole thing started when McGhee was ticketed by the police. She said she's not worried about her safety downtown and never has been.

"Up until now, no one's been concerned with my safety," she said. "They keep saying, 'She has all this money on her.' I wish I did."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

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