Vendorville: City mulls upping Mall rents

For rent: Ten square feet in a prime Downtown Mall location– $1,200/year. Roof not included.


Vendors around Central Place could see their rents triple if City Council approves new ordinances next month. A choice spot in the middle of the mall will go from $400 a year to $1,200 for a 10.5 x 10.5-foot stand.

"We're recommending they be increased," says neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert. "We didn't charge anything a couple of years ago. We're way below what other areas charge."

Tolbert calls it leveling the playing field between vendors with no overhead and retailers who rent space on the mall for $20 a square foot.

"The price for vending space on the Downtown Mall is probably lower than any place in the country," says Quilts Unlimited owner Joan Fenton, who's also co-chair of the Downtown Business Association. "At some malls like Boulder or Burlington, vendors pay up to $1,000 a month."

She adds, "For the city to be giving away prime real estate... It should be competitive."

But there are breaks to be found. Vendors willing to set up tables on side streets can get the bargain rate of $400/year, and space on the east end of the mall will go for $600.

"It's not because it's the low-rent district," says Tolbert. "The amphitheater is there, the transit center will be there." The hope is that the low rent will encourage vendors to spread out to the east end of the mall, and that in turn will entice pedestrians.

And there's one upside to the new ordinance: Thirty spaces on the mall will be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, which means vendors won't have to show up at 7am to secure their regular spot on the mall.

"I like the idea of spaces being assigned," says Mark Deaton, who drives over from Staunton to sell hot dogs at Central Place.

Dorjee Domdoo fears the rent increase could put him out of business. "Some days we sell zero," he says, and then he has to pack up his sunglasses and clothes and cart them back home. He thinks sales would be worse on the east end of the mall.

"I'm looking for a job so my family will have benefits," he says.

While he acknowledges that a lot of business people on the mall take issue with the vendors, Rapture owner Mike Rodi says he does not: "My take is they're not in direct competition." For instance, "I don't serve hot dogs and a bag of chips," he says. "And on a nice day, it's nice to buy a hot dog and bag of chips."

The mall vendors are most affected by weather, Rodi adds, and he doesn't think they're making huge profits. But they do contribute to the mall's ambience.

"They're part of what makes the city so cool," he says.

Another section of the proposed ordinance deals with outdoor cafés like the one Rodi has at Rapture.

Roped off areas will be required to have a detectable bottom barrier along the outermost perimeter. "We've been getting a lot of complaints from the blind community," says Tolbert.

More troublesome to Rodi is that the ordinance allows the city to re-allocate outdoor café areas on an annual basis if, say, a new restaurant opens and wants a piece of the outdoor action.

Currently 800 square feet is the maximum space the city will rent to restaurants on the mall, but some of the older eateries like the Nook, the Hardware Store, Sal's, Rapture and Miller's have larger spaces, says Tolbert.

"A place like Rapture helped establish the trend of outdoor cafés," says Rodi. "I think that should factor into a decision before saying, 'We're going to take some of your space'" if someone decides to open a new restaurant.

Last year, the city made the unpopular decision to order all outdoor cafés to pack up their furniture from December 15 to March 1. "Last February had some 70 degree days," recalls Rodi. "I was dead. People wanted to eat out, and that hurt a lot."

The proposed ordinance offers restaurants the opportunity to pay an additional one-third rent and remain open year round, as long as the café is used at least five days a month.

"We're trying to keep people from using it as storage," says Tolbert. "That's the problem– it starts looking like the devil."

Rodi doesn't want the mall looking like a dump either. And he has no problem paying an extra fee to stay open from November 20 to March 1. "It's a bargain," he says.

The ordinances go before City Council September 6. If the new regs are approved, mall denizens who want to sip their lattes outside on a decent day in December won't have to sit on the ground– and they'll know exactly where to find their favorite vendors.


<img src="/images/issues/2003/0247/news-vendors.jpg"> <BR>Prime Downtown Mall real estate could jump from $400 to $1,200 a year.</B><br>FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO