For a dozen years, Bill Kohlhepp has sold hot dogs off the grill and soda to hungry baseball and football fans downtown.
His tent is in an ideal spot to grab the attention of spectators streaming toward Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium: on the pedestrian island of a busy intersection northwest of Oriole Park. Now that spot, between Russell Street and Washington Boulevard, is also right along the two-mile race track for theBaltimore Grand Prix.
And as the Grand Prix draws near and barriers and grandstands are erected, Kohlhepp says he's watched the advantages of his location evaporate. During the races over Labor Day weekend, vendors will have to move far from the action on the race course. In the meantime, they complain Grand Prix preparations have limited pedestrian access to their stands during the potentially lucrative weekend Orioles series against the New York Yankees.
The situation has infuriated the city's licensed vendors, who have complained about their treatment before the city panel that regulates them, arguing that they should be able to keep their regular spots. The Grand Prix will control vending on the streets that are closed for the races.
"At the last meeting, I looked at the vendor board guys and said, 'I know when I'm being thrown a bone with no meat on it,'" said Kohlhepp, who pays about $375 per year for a licensed spot on public space.
Grand Prix supporters argue that the city has worked hard to find a place for the vendors. City Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the area and was an early proponent of the race, says even with the move, the Grand Prix will wind up helping the vendors.
"If this was a normal Labor Day weekend, the Orioles rarely play that weekend," Cole said. "It's three days they wouldn't have had any business."
Grand Prix organizers set aside high-traffic areas outside the race zone for the city's vendors, said Pete Collier, the event's chief operating officer. Moving vendors out of their normal locations was necessary because the areas where sellers congregate for ballgames will be unsafe during the race, he said.
"It wasn't to hurt them," Collier said. Moving the licensed vendors out of the track area will actually allow them to sell their goods with less competition, he said.
The first of more than 2,200 concrete race walls was erected in the last week of July, eventually snaking throughout the Inner Harbor. Each wall is 12 feet long and topped with a thick-wire fence. For more than a week, two lines of these walls have separated Kohlhepp's stand from fans across the street at the stadium.
Friday night, during the first game of the Orioles-Yankees weekend series, fans walking down the west side of Russell Street could not even see Kohlhepp's stand. The concrete barriers, grandstands and chain-link fences on both sides of the street completely block the vendors from view.
"We play the hand we're dealt," said Eric Hartka, who was running the grill and has worked for Kohlhepp for more than two years. He said that they were selling their fair share of sausages and sandwiches Friday night, but that things were a bit slower than normal. "Whether it's that there's a hurricane coming or it's the [Grand Prix] stands, I don't know."
Several weeks ago, the board sent licensed street vendors a letter notifying them that they will be required to move their booths during the Grand Prix and then had a meeting with them to explain the situation, said Alvin Gillard, director of the city's Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement.
During the Grand Prix, vending licenses within the race "footprint" are managed by the Grand Prix organizers, not the city, said Frank C. Derr, deputy chief of the Bureau of Revenue Collections.
About 21 vendors are being relocated to Charles and Paca streets and the south side of Lombard Street, Gillard said, and will be allowed to sell during the Grand Prix whatever they are normally licensed to sell. If they choose to sell race-related merchandise, he said, they must receive permission from race officials.
Gillard has been at the helm of the city's vendors board for the last 15 years. Over the past five years, the number of licensed street vendors in Baltimore has more than doubled, Gillard said. He chalks up the increase, from about 20 vendors in 2005, to the down economy — people trying to stay afloat without a typical 9-to-5 job.
The vendors who are not being relocated either chose not to sell during the Grand Prix or have stands outside of the race's footprint.
Food vendors like Kohlhepp pay $375 for their yearly licenses, Gillard said. Apparel and merchandise vendors pay a $75 fee per year to set up shop along streets near the stadium, he said, and vendors outside the prime sales areas downtown pay reduced rates for vending licenses. Food trucks throughout the city pay a $375 annual rate.
"Those permits are a privilege, not a right," said Cole. "They can be taken away for any number of reasons."
The city has "put a lot of time and effort" into organizing alternative locations during the Grand Prix, Cole said, even though it had no legal obligation to accommodate them.
Lisa Walters' family has been in the street vending business for decades, going back to the days of Memorial Stadium. Walters is satisfied with how the vendor board has resolved vendors' concerns this year although her apparel stand, south of Oriole Park on Lee Street, was displaced by a footbridge built for the race.
"Things are being handled well," Walters said. The city has allowed her to move her wares into the street during the Yankees series. Friday night, a few orange traffic cones were the only thing separating her booth — and her customers — from cars creeping through the busy crosswalk.
Walters said she wished communication had been better during construction. The numerous city agencies involved in planning the event each gave the street vendors different information about when and where they would be able to sell their Orioles and Ravens gear, she said. She is also concerned that it was so easy for the city to make her move.
"It's 14 losing [Orioles'] seasons and I don't play around anymore," said Lisa, who criticized the city's flexible license terms and said she's ready to fight to maintain her livelihood. "With a flick of the pen," she said, "we'll lose our spots."
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