It's likely to go by without any public acclaim but April 20 will represent the one-year anniversary of the first meeting of Lexington's Itinerant Merchant Task Force.
In that year this group of dedicated people, led by Councilwoman Peggy Henson, has made significant progress on reaching agreement about how the city should deal with merchants who set up shop on public property to sell non-food goods (t-shirts, for example, these days) throughout the community.
The work has bogged down, though, over the topic of food trucks or carts, particularly in Lexington's downtown. Despite months of trying to develop a pilot program, there's a real likelihood that another warm weather season could go by without a chance to buy something other than a hot dog or nacho cheese on the streets of downtown Lexington.
That would be a shame.
There are a host of health regulations that present hurdles but that's not the problem. The true conflict is over how mobile food vendors would affect established brick-and-mortar restaurants already operating downtown. Many restaurant owners, who have invested enormous time, effort and capital into their establishments, are understandably wary about inviting food merchants with much lower overhead into the area as competitors.
That's a legitimate reason to think carefully about how, where and when mobile food merchants would operate — as the task force has — but it's not a compelling argument to keep them out of downtown altogether. More important to Lexington, to downtown and ultimately to the business people who have invested there is creating a lively, inviting street scene that will attract people throughout the day and the week. It's in the interest of everyone to find a compromise that can bring street food to Lexington this summer.
This has worked in "foodie" cities like Seattle (where the information about food carts, interestingly, is found on the city's economic development page) and Austin, and it can work here.
There's also a basic question about whether it would even be possible to stop food trucks or carts. Right now, any that pass muster with the health department can get a license to do business and set up on private property. In El Paso the city repealed restrictions on where and how mobile food vendors could operate after they were challenged in federal court.
Back in Lexington, the task force is considering a pilot program that would allow food carts and trucks after 10 p.m. to cater to the bar crowd after restaurants have closed their kitchens. We'd take that a step further and suggest some regular daylight hours on weekends for those too old or too young to enjoy the late-night scene. It could help dispel the eerie quiet that can settle over downtown Lexington on summer weekend days.
The task force has worked hard and it's time to present a pilot program that the full council can endorse to allow more and better food on downtown streets this summer.