City Council members split in Melrose Avenue vendors debate

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Ron Christensen only saw a small handful of vendors on Melrose Avenue when he attended Hawkeye football games as a student in the late-1960s.

"When we started out, it was me, and my wife, and the tent," said Christensen, who now owns Gameday Iowa, which sells Hawkeye apparel on football Saturdays.

Christensen is one of 27 vendors along the Melrose stretch. The practice has moved from a few hamburger stands to a street-spanning bazaar of turkey legs, beer, and vibrant Hawkeye apparel.

But the growth has sparked controversy — apparent by the recent proposal to ban unregulated vendors from Melrose Avenue.

The Iowa City city councilors — who have mixed reactions to the proposal — are set to discuss the issue at tonight's work session.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said he opposes a total ban of all vendors and would prefer a compromise by adopting regulations that hold vendors to the same noise and safety standards as local farmers' markets and street festivals.

Hayek said Kinnick Stadium's proximity to a residential neighborhood makes it difficult to balance interests between football fans looking to party and residents looking for peace and quiet.

"We have years of historic [vendors] among Melrose Avenue with zero regulation," Hayek said. "I'm not sure we need to take it to the other end of the spectrum at this point in time, which is banning them. I think we should pursue a middle ground in which we impose structure over vendors, addressing concerns of the Neighborhood Association while preserving tradition on that street."

Yet City Councilor Mike Wright said small businesses aren't a part of traditional tailgating.

"It's not tailgating, it's vendors setting up in people's yards, people out there to make money," he said. "Most tailgaters are not there to make money. They're friends having fun."

Wright said he understands many fans love the vendor atmosphere. But he also said the city needs to consider the legality of residents renting out their property to tailgaters.

Jean Walker, the head of the Melrose Neighborhood Association, said she wants to balance the game-day atmosphere with the needs of a historic neighborhood. She recommended moving vendors to the parking lot next to Kinnick, though admitted that may be difficult because of UI regulations prohibiting vendors on university property. An alternative space could be a 400-square-foot grassy area next to Hawkins Drive.

"I don't have anything against vending at football games, it's part of the atmosphere," she said. "[Melrose] is a fragile, historic neighborhood and doesn't need to be trashed."

Many vendors said they understand the neighborhood's concerns, but they want to keep their current posts on the street.

"The vendors themselves need to be talked with, rather than dictated to what needs to be done," said Chuck Ford, who runs the Big Ass Turkey Legs stand. "I don't have a problem with that. They just need to provide something for trash and something for people to go to the bathroom in. Once that's conquered, you'll eliminate most of the problem."

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