Proposed Rules for Vendor's Plaza Draw Fire

Jan. 22, 2009 – It's been 17 years since the merchants of Vendor's Plaza were given new rules and regulations and in some cases nine years since they've been enforced, according to government officials.
In a public meeting Thursday evening at the American Legion Hall in Sub Base, vendors were given the opportunity to voice their opinions on a revised draft proposed by Licensing and Consumer Affairs, the V.I. Police Department and the Office of the St. Thomas-Water Island Administrator. The purpose of the meeting was to inform the merchants of the impending enforcement, proposed changes, and to dispel lingering rumors concerning the fate of the plaza.
With the territory feeling the force of the economic recession on the mainland, any improvements made to the plaza could help boost local tourism, according to St. Thomas-Water Island Administrator Barbara Petersen. Describing the vendors as “valuable resources” and “ambassadors” for the islands, Petersen added that the previous set of rules governing the Plaza have not been enforced for years, which has left the area overcrowded and the vendors out of compliance with proper permitting regulations.
Some vendors wait years before re-applying for a permit, which is supposed to be renewed annually, added District Police Chief Rodney Querrard. Meanwhile, vendors pay $200 a year to lease their spaces at the plaza, but then turnaround and sublet it for two or three times that, he added.
Under the old rules, implemented in 1992, vendors are not allowed to cook food in their licensed space, sell alcohol or sub-lease their spot. Petersen said all three of those issues, and others, have arisen since her office joined forces with the Licensing and Consumer Affairs and the V.I. Police Department in an effort to implement some new rules and clean up the site.
“Vendors Plaza has become a self-contained little city – no one is really overseeing what happens there,” she said Thursday, to the large group of vendors that turned out for the public meeting at the American Legion Hall in Sub Base. “That’s not fair to you, your safety, and it’s not fair to the community.”
The most intractable issue was a proposal to require new eight-by-eight tents.
Though government officials said that the rules are currently in draft form to give the vendors the opportunity to voice their concerns and suggest revisions, Petersen said that one of the new rules – that vendors would have to trade in their own tents for government issued ones – is non-negotiable. Vendors would have to deposit $100 for the tent, along with another $50 for government-issued tablecloths – an effort meant to bring more “uniformity” to the area, she said.
While many said they had already spent hundreds of dollars to purchase their own coverings and would now have to shell out more money for the deposit, others, such as St. Thomas-resident Abdullah Muhammad, said that the 1992 rules do not set out any parameters for the size of the tents – just the space in which the vendors operate.
“We are not in disagreement over the downsizing,” Muhammad said. “But we are not in agreement in accepting eight-by-eight. So we are saying, if there is going to be a fight, bear in mind, this is where the battle will begin … we will go to war over this.”
Muhammad’s comments added more fuel to the other vendors’ fires, as many rose to their feet to voice their concerns in rapid succession. At times it was difficult to hear or discern who was saying what. Often the calls from government officials to bring the meeting to order were unsuccessful.
”The main part is that we recognized that everybody is at the table and we’re discussing it,” State Historic Preservation Commission chairman Felipe Ayala said after the meeting, when asked what good came out of the discussion. The size of the tent, Petersen added during the meeting, would give visitors to the plaza more space in which to walk.
Trying to assure vendors that no one is trying to drive them out of the downtown area, Ayala explained that any change made to an historic area – whether it be raising a roof or pruning a tree – must be cleared by the commission first. But the rules are not meant to stymie progress, he added.
“We have to look at our history and culture and determine how best to promote and preserve it,” he said. “But we feel there’s a common ground between preservation and commerce.”
About $100,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds have been turned over to DLCA to help with improvements to Vendors Plaza, one business owner pointed out.
“We have the money,” DLCA Commissioner Kenrick Robertson said after the meeting when various vendors approached to ask him where the funds are. “I was working with DPNR on the issue, but then the director, Wanda Mills-Bocachica, quit, and I didn’t know who to contact from there.”
Meanwhile, Petersen said later that she has been in talks with Public Works to see how much money could be put toward improvements at Vendors Plaza, including sidewalk repair and restrooms. Work will start “sooner than you think,” she assured vendors Thursday.
“We’ve been hearing that for years,” came the response from the crowd.
It is unclear at this point when the rules will go into effect. Government officials said Thursday that they would make note of the vendors’ concerns and try to incorporate them into the final document. But since the new rules apply to all vendors on the island and not just those operating in Vendors Plaza, additional public meetings will have to be scheduled, said Lorna A.C. Thomas, head of the State Historic Preservation Office.
In an effort to move the process forward, representatives from DLCA, VIPD and the Administrator’s Office will soon be meeting with the vendors’ attorney.
“What I’m seeing here is that that we’re constantly hearing the government say, ‘this is what we want,’” attorney Bernard Van Sluytman said as the meeting wrapped up. “But what we’re not hearing is what the government is going to do for the licensees.”

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