Hungry on High Street
Morgantown's city manager explains not one, but two ordinances that may have an effect on street vendors downtown.
Downtown Morgantown on Friday night is not for the faint of heart. Throngs of WVU students and young professionals swarm the streets, ready for a release. Lines snake along the storefronts, people waiting to get in to Sports Page to sing karaoke or Joe Mama’s to dance. Clumps of smokers cluster around the entrances, nursing cigarettes and sharing stories. It’s not uncommon to see someone sitting on the ground, dizzy from drinking, or a fight spreading out onto the street.
In the middle of this mess is the Hot Dog Man, whistling and chatting while he scoops out a warm dog, slaps it on a bun, and tops it with all the good stuff a boozy heart could desire. A Morgantown institution in his own right, he has a line of his own trailing down High Street. It’s no wonder that, when city officials recently passed an ordinance regulating street vendors on the most congested area of High Street, outrage arose.
“It all started with a request by the police department and the fire department,” says Morgantown city manager Jeff Mikorski. “They were concerned about ‘choke points’ during the busiest times downtown.” By choke points, Jeff means places where the sidewalk becomes too congested to accommodate traffic. Between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekends, the 300 block of High Street houses more than 7,000 people, he says. The sidewalks get blocked, and at 2 a.m., caution and cordiality are often replaced by a quick temper and a lack of foresight. Jeff says there are a lot of fights and accidents in that area as a result.
City officials have been thinking about regulating downtown food vendors all year, and in September 2013, they voted on two ordinances in response to the situation. One ordinance focused on sidewalk vendors, while the other ordinance focused on food trucks. The ordinance about sidewalk vendors passed, and was originally intended to go into effect on October 1. But the ordinance on food trucks was tabled—and since it contained the rules and regulations to govern food vendors downtown, the effective date for the passed ordinance was extended to January 1, 2014. “Now we’re in the process of proposing new rules and regulations for the effective date,” Jeff says.
Originally, city officials considered roping off parking spots downtown for the vendors. Recently, they’ve thought about restricting them to an area of downtown with wider sidewalks—problem is, those areas are isolated from the foot traffic coming in and out of bars. “The food vendors want to be close to that area,” Jeff says. “We’re still discussing options. We’ll probably decide in November.”
At any rate, hot dog enthusiasts of Morgantown have no reason to fear that their end-of-the-night weekend ritual will be over anytime soon. “There have been a lot of rumors that we want to eliminate food vendors for this reason or another. That’s far from the truth,” says Jeff. “We’re just trying to find a solution for a problem.”
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