Salemians who love their newly-legal food trucks are upset that the Fusion truck was forced to move from its downtown location after some restaurants complained about it.
I've blogged about this hot topic in "So Salem: downtown restaurants kick out a food cart" and "Wow! Fusion controversy shows Salem loves food trucks."
Here's a March 14 Facebook posting by Sean Mulrooney that contributes nicely to the discussion over how downtown Salem should evolve, and who should be involved with that evolution. I'll add some thoughts of my own below Mulrooney's.
Regarding the food truck thing -
It's hard to know for sure how it shook out but I do enjoy when an organization or group overreaches, as if they are speaking for us, but ultimately it was for themselves, to go on record as specifically opposing food trucks, and have it backfire. Restaurants take a risk and are fully allowed and encouraged to fight for their interests against legitimate threats to their livelihood. I do not believe that food trucks rise to that level of threat though.
I would love to read a clear and public restatement of the positions held by Venti's and other rumored opponents to food trucks. I plan on asking so I can hear it directly from them. They deserve to be heard too.
Speaking of being heard, there's an odd-feeling dynamic playing out downtown that seems to be just accepted as the rule now which confuses me: Clearly business owners should have a voice in how they are allowed to conduct their business. But at what point do the citizens of Salem have, at the very least, an equal voice? This notion that business owners get to call ALL the shots seems misguided if not flat out tone deaf.
What if I, as a person of Salem, want a food truck as an option? That's not a rhetorical question. I can't even play devil's advocate and muster a fake argument to support opposition to a food truck option. Unless I was a competitor. And I can't pretend that's a good enough reason.
Meanwhile if local restaurants feel strongly enough to go on record to oppose food trucks and they feel they have more standing than we do, then they should say it publicly. That's how adults work.
Finally, it's my understanding that city council has come down on the side of food trucks and that some of these current issues being dealt with are stemming from this being a relatively new agreement and not everybody knows how to implement it. If that's true then that really matters. That's important to note and believe and be patient about and is worthy of trust. No need to get militant or threaten a boycott, in my opinion - With the rules in place, this will sort itself out. Some facts and clarity are welcome.
Nicely put, Sean. You got me to thinking, a good thing.
Reading what Mulrooney said, I understood more clearly that this food truck controversy needs to be embedded in the Big Picture of what has been happening downtown in the past year or two.
There's a lot that can be said about this. I'll try to be fairly brief, linking to previous blog posts where you can get more info.
(1) Absence of a downtown organization. In most cities, there would be a viable downtown organization that could help mediate the debate over introducing food trucks to the area. But Salem's duly-selected organization was taken over by the City Manager, who screwed it up royally. See here and here.
This has created a downtown leadership void that, in my opinion, the ever-scheming folks at City Hall -- Mayor, City Manager, majority of city councilors -- enjoy. Because that way they can do their Machiavellian thing outside of public view.
(2) City Hall has special favorites. As I said in my most recent Strange Up Salem column in Salem Weekly, lack of trust describes the current relationship between this town's citizenry and the folks at City Hall.
Part of this mistrust stems from how the Mayor and City Manager like to play favorites with special interests, rather than representing the broad public interest.
For example, Dino Venti and Jim Vu are downtown parking policy "golden boys" for the City of Salem, which has been using them and their hand-selected Parking Group to bolster the City's push for a return to time limits and, likely, parking meters at some not-too-distant future. See here and here.
This makes it easy for people to think that Venti and Vu, who are both associated with downtown restaurants (directly, and as a building owner), will get some special consideration from City of Salem officials, either explicitly or implicitly.
You know, the whole "you scratch my political back, I'll scratch yours" thing. It's hard to tell if this is going on here, but since this is how City Hall generally works these days, the suspicion is easily justified.
(3) Top-down planning is how City officials operate. As noted above, Linda Norris, the City Manager, personally took over the downtown organization, managing (or rather mismanaging) First Wednesday and other events herself.
Similarly, the City's first attempt to install downtown parking meters involved a task force that never asked downtown businesses how they felt about this. They thought they could just ram it through without anybody noticing.
But people did. A petition to ban downtown parking meters and institute free unlimited parking got over 9,000 signatures. City Hall had to back off.
For a while. Soon, though, as noted in (2), City officials used a few downtown businesspeople as cover to reinstate time limits. Again, without conducting a broad bottom-up discussion of downtown parking policies. See here.
So the Fusion food truck controversy can't be viewed in isolation from broader downtown Salem dysfunction. Lots of people who care about downtown, and businesses there, are fed up with how City officials are screwing up Salem's urban core/Historic District.
And since there isn't a functional downtown organization that can address issues like food trucks in the central area, resolving controversies like this one is made more difficult. Downtown doesn't speak with a single voice, nor does it even have a way of coming up with a consensual perspective.
Which, again, is how I believe the folks at City Hall like it.
This allows them to do their "divide and conquer" thing, favoring some downtown business owners over others and setting up sham public involvement efforts.
What needs to change? Lots of things. As Sean Mulrooney said, the public needs to become more involved, somehow or other. I really liked these words of his:
Clearly business owners should have a voice in how they are allowed to conduct their business. But at what point do the citizens of Salem have, at the very least, an equal voice? This notion that business owners get to call ALL the shots seems misguided if not flat out tone deaf.