Following years of development, the city of Mobile has decided to start enforcing a 1975 code regulating street sales during the monthly LoDa ArtWalks in downtown. As the booths, tables and buskers have grown along the route, concerns have surfaced and resulted in an ordinance especially for the event.
A peddlers license will now be required for those wishing to sell items along the route, chiefly in Cathedral Square. The particulars of that permit, as outlined by the city’s Special Events Department are as follows:
• ArtWalk vendors are limited to the sale of items that are hand-made, hand-painted or hand-drawn. No food is allowed for sale.
• Vendors are limited to a 10-by-10-foot space.
• Space in Cathedral Square and along sidewalks is available on a first-come-first-served basis.
• No vendor may set up within 15 feet of an open retail establishment without permission from the establishment.
• No equipment or electricity will be provided by the city or ArtWalk.
• Vendors may not attach items for sale or promotional information to private property, including, but not limited to, fences and vacant property without the written approval from the property owner.
• Vendors should not block pedestrian walkways.
• Vendors will be denied access to Cathedral Square if the square is reserved for an event (examples would be Arts Alive, USA pep rally, etc.)
• Vending is allowed in Cathedral Square from the hours of 6-9 p.m. on the second Friday of each month during ArtWalk. Vending on any other days or times is prohibited.
• All vendors must obtain a business license from the Mobile Revenue Department.
• Business licenses must be prominently displayed at all times.
• Vendors must submit an ArtWalk Participation Application to the Special Events Department. There is no fee for the application. Special Events staff will verify that products for sale are hand-made, hand-painted or hand-drawn. The cost of the license is roughly $138 annually.
Special Events has operated in conjunction with the Downtown Business Alliance and the Mobile Arts Council to give the heads up via meetings on the last Wednesdays of the past few months, but when Special Events posted a notification of the impending changes on their Facebook page last week, the proverbial lower intestinal maelstrom ensued.
The umbrage prompted Artifice to do a little digging. We encountered business owners who declined to go on record for fear of backlash so we went to their appointed voice.
“It’s been in the city legal department for a while,” Downtown Business Alliance Spokesperson Carol Hunter said. “What prompted it was two things. One was that our brick-and-mortar galleries were concerned with having to compete with vendors who weren’t paying anything in terms of sales taxes and business licenses or maintaining a constant presence on Dauphin Street. The other was it became less of an opportunity for artists than for people to sell kind of repurposed items.”
Hunter’s reference to “repurposed items” became clear with digging. Artifice spoke with downtown business owners and city employees who discovered items such as lighters, glo-sticks, second-hand attire and artifacts for sale, with special attention to Cathedral Square. One city worker told us of coming across someone with a table in the doorway of a vacant building running a three-card monty.
“On the plus side, I think that application and permit process gives those artists a little more legitimacy,” Hunter said. “The movement is to create a little more organization and to create a little bit more of a level playing field.”
Part of the furor generated by the new policy has been cries that it will “kill” ArtWalk. The indignant claim it undermines a sense of community and violates the reasons for event’s establishment.
“The reason we started ArtWalk was because the gallery owners talked about the rise in business during Arts Alive (the street festival),” Chris Barraza said. “It was to help the brick-and-mortar businesses.”
Barraza was in the office of Neighborhood and Community Services in 2005 and was the principle organizer for the event until she left the office roughly seven years later. The event had phenomenal success during her term with attendance climbing from around 250 to thousands.
“We always tried to reserve Cathedral Square for programming, performances and that stuff,” Barraza said. She also realizes the great influx of vendors is a sign of success, that they go where the people are more than the inverse.
“This is a good problem to have,” Barraza said. “I also understand both sides of this. I think there’s room for young artists who want to get their toes wet, we just need to figure out how to do it.”
Ruffled sensibilities stir implications of governmental conspiracy rooted in everything from avarice to the squashing of creativity or desires for conformity. In turn, angry voices compare Mobile to other towns, saying they foster their arts through more libertine approaches.
“We don’t have street vendors during our monthly art walks,” Eastern Shore Arts Center (ESAC) Director Kate Fisher said. ESAC coordinates Fairhope’s monthly First Friday Artwalk.
“If someone wanted to set up in front of the Arts Center for First Friday, we can’t let them do that,” Fisher said. “First of all, we are hosting an exhibition for our artists here and we don’t want to dilute what we’re trying to do here. But if we did, I would have to make sure they had a vendor’s license.”
Fisher explained that Baldwin County and the city of Fairhope are strict about checking the appropriate licenses.
“We don’t have any street vendors because the event is established for the brick-and-mortar businesses,” Fisher said.
During the Grand Festival of Art in autumn and the springtime Arts and Crafts Festival, Fisher said the city forgives the licensing but they still are supposed to pay the county and state.
“I understand art is very difficult to move right now and these kids are trying to make a living off of it and if they can sell a mug for $10 and keep the $10 that’s great,” Fisher said. “I feel badly for the artists but if they want to have their tables, they’re going to have to organize it and it’s going to have to be run the right way instead of being a free-for-all and that would make it nicer for the artists, too.”
Some of the incensed point to New Orleans and claim their policies are more lax. But a call to the city of New Orleans Revenue Department dispelled such.
According to New Orleans city code, Section 110, mayorality permits and licenses are required to exhibit in their public spaces most attractive to foot traffic. The most visible, Jackson Square, allows only 200 licenses annually and there is a waiting list. Permits are renewable in January and there is a $20 fee just for the application. The occupational license itself carries a $175 yearly price tag.
Those permits are for “only those works produced and for sale by the artist which have been accomplished essentially by hand and precludes any mechanical or duplicative process in whole or part.” Reproduction prints aren’t allowed.
Mayorality permits are also required for buskers, or street entertainers that proliferate the French Quarter.
The issue of business licenses is even more costly. In New Orleans, a transient merchant’s license runs $500.
According to the city of Mobile Revenue Department, a business license begins at $178. There’s also charges based on gross revenue.
Word grew across social media that individuals who contacted the mayor’s office received assurance the new policies by the Revenue and Special Events departments would not be enforced. They said the administration was looking for a solution.
Artifice tried to contact the mayor’s office with both emails and phone calls to answer questions about licenses and permits.
As of this time, the inquiry generated two responses. The first said they were looking into it. The second forwarded along an Oct. 17 statement by Mobile Arts Council Executive Director Bob Burnett.
“Artists are not exempt from the rules and regulations that all people trying to make a living in our society have to follow,” Burnett wrote. “Permits and licenses are a fact of life, and most businesses and entrepreneurs understand that these assessments go toward the maintenance of the community’s streets and sidewalks and security for businesses and their patrons.”
Burnett reiterated statements about the event’s genesis as a service to both the established businesses and artistic endeavors. He also noted the city’s extensive commitment of resources, including traffic management, paid advertisement and the hiring of street musicians.
Burnett also wrote that all entities involved are looking for the best solution to everyone’s issues. ArtWalk artists were included in that listing.
“All we’ve ever done is try to let people know these are the expectations,” Burnett told Artifice. “If you want to sell work, this is what’s required of anybody selling work on the street.”
Burnett said the appearance of things that can be found at your average “flea market” have raised concern.
“What we want people to see is what’s representative of Mobile’s arts and crafts community,” he said. “You have groups of people that are doing their best to protect the artists that are here and to provide a good experience for them and the people who come into downtown Mobile.”