July 28, 2008 — A fixture familiar to downtown Charlotte Amalie for years — the barker — faces extinction Thursday.
The Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs is removing the ambitious and, to some, annoying promoters from plying their trade on Main Street on that date.
The move, endorsed by the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission, is generating much comment from downtown business owners, local shoppers, and, of course, the barkers themselves.
As of Thursday, their voices will be stilled as a government order requiring that only barkers with licenses can ply their trade takes effect.
The V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs sent out letters to barkers and downtown businesses that "the activity of barking in the downtown area will be discontinued.'
DLCA Commissioner Kenrick Robertson said the decision "is not something anyone just dreamed up."
Two years ago, DLCA, with the backing of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce and the St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission, put the barkers on notice that they had to have current solicitors' and sales licenses. At the time, Joseph Aubain, chamber president, and then DLCA commissioner Andrew Rutnik proposed a plan to work with the barkers toward becoming regulated.
Since that time, Aubain and Robertson say, nothing has materialized. Most barkers did obtain licenses, Robertson said, but almost all of those licenses have expired. Robertson said that DLCA officers will patrol downtown enforcing the law.
"We know whose licenses have expired," Robertson said. "The 2006 plan was an experiment that didn't work. They have not renewed their licenses. They are a nuisance. We get too many reports from individuals, tourists, cruise ship companies, complaining of their passengers being harassed.
"The strange thing I don't understand," Robertson said, "is why the stores they were barking for didn't see fit to upgrade the condition of the people promoting their merchandise."
Aubain said, "Based on the sheer number of complaints, and after working with the barkers and trying to come to a solution, it just didn't work. We are competing against other Caribbean destinations. We have to come up with a solution in the best interest of visitors and anyone else who walks downtown."
Veteran barker Kan-Kan Sekou, agreed that the problem is a lack of regulation. Sekou has a regular gig for Diamonds International. "As an example, the police have a regulatory agency who investigate corruption. That's what we need. We don't know who is barking for whom," he said.
He couldn't say who the regulatory agency should be, but he expressed disappointment that the experiment of two years ago never caught hold.
"We were supposed to get organized, but after about six weeks, it fell apart," he said. "There are some bad apples who harass people, who come down here in season only, and they give us a bad name. People should complain to the stores that hire them."
The Department of Tourism has initiated a program seeking greeters for the airport and cruise ship docks which could help the barkers. Allegra Kean, Tourism director of communications, said the department is hiring now. The greeters would work as independent contractors on a part-time basis, at $8 an hour to start.
Barker Charles Matthews, who dresses as a Zulu warrior in full regalia, said he supports a family of four, and cannot possibly live on $8 an hour. "I see what's coming," he said. "It's a massive cleanup of taxis and vendors. They always blame the barkers. We do a lot of good. I've been doing this 25 years.
"What they should do is clean up the street," Matthews said, "repave the sidewalks and put in some benches." Almost as an afterthought, Matthews hauls out a photo of the Zulu carnival troupe. "I wear this to raise funds for the troupe," he said, while clearly enjoying the cameras popping around him.
Sekou said he picked up a greeter application. "First of all, the Tourism Department absolves itself of any involvement with the person," he said. "It makes clear you are on your own. And I couldn't support myself on $8 an hour."
Both Sekou and Matthews pointed out that they are taxpayers.
Sekou said his license has expired, but, "I have options — a lot of others don't." He maintains that the barkers are an asset. "We are the first when an accident happens, when somebody wants to know where a bathroom is. We are like a maitre d for downtown, directing you."
Felipe Ayala, St. Thomas-St. John Historic Preservation Commission chairman, said a maitre d'hotel is precisely what isn't needed. Ayala said that assumes that "tourists are stupid, that they can't figure out how to shop and get around town. We don't offer them the ability to wander and explore shops on their own."
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring issues pertinent to the growth and management of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Part two will hear from Ayala and downtown business owners about barkers, as well as other issues including signage, traffic flow and taxis.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.