Hidden Meanings

A law with unintended consequences may end up targeting street fair vendors

Later in life, Tucson artist Erni Cabat took to illustrating lovely children's books. Remarkable items they were, popular for their simplicity, beautiful style and the fact that each held a hidden meaning.

Cabat passed away in 1994. But hidden meanings lived on, this time settling around his tidy and charming little studio on the northern reaches of Fourth Avenue.

Steve Wind can tell you all about it. He's been trying to tell city officials since last year, but no one has been listening.

During each Fourth Avenue Street Fair, Wind and a group of friends sell nifty goods, from Nepalese bags to fine roasted coffee, in the shadows of Cabat's old studio. This is done with permission from June Cabat, Erni Cabat's daughter and a top Bisbee jewelry maker.

Still, an ordinance enacted by the City Council last fall contains a hidden meaning. Or at least a veiled effect--one that could put Wind and pals right out of business.

The very law that has Wind in a huff originated far from Fourth Avenue, among the bustling wiener carts and steaming taco stands of Tucson's southside. Last year, neighbors began loudly complaining that these vendors were creating a racket and leaving trash in their wake. City leaders reacted by enacting an ordinance restricting both the time and place that vendors could ply their trades. But there was a steep cost: municipal bean counters estimated that up to 1,000 micro-businesses could be hit by the new ordinance. It was to become a delicate balancing act, Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson told the Arizona Daily Star. "We're not trying to be onerous with these rules," she said, "but we're also trying to respect the people who work around and live around these vendor sites."

Regardless, the new rules drew sharp criticism from vendors. "I wish (the council) would just be honest with us," Fourth Avenue hot dog hawker Joe Martinez told the Star. "They say they want to work with us, but in reality, they just want to get rid of us."

Only Councilman Fred Ronstadt voted against the ordinance, saying it could put good vendors out of business, right along with those causing trouble. He described the ordinance as using "a 40-pound sledgehammer for a job that requires a scalpel."

The law took effect in April, and it was draconian: Now vendors couldn't set up shop within 100 feet of a residential property, within 100 feet of other vendors or within 300 feet of a major intersection.

Meanwhile, Steve Wind watched from the sidelines and grew increasingly troubled. It seemed the law would forbid him and other Fourth Avenue Street Fair vendors who operate on the sidelines--in driveways or parking lots--from doing business as well. Indeed, he says a Fourth Avenue Street Fair official told him the law could affect hundreds of fair vendors.

"At the Cabat Studio, we are next to a private home," Wind says. "And how are we going to be 100 feet from each other?"

He started shopping these concerns around City Hall--and got nowhere. "I visited every City Council office," he says, "and though they just kept putting me off, I don't know how they couldn't have been aware of this part of the ordinance."

Wind has his facts right, according to Walter Tellez, the city's zoning administrator. Vendors are "technically" not allowed in the drives and lots of Fourth Avenue," Tellez says. "The setbacks do apply there."

Steve Leal calls this detail a surprise. He represents Ward 5 on the southside, where many of the vendor problems occurred. Though he helped push the new vendor law, Leal admits misunderstanding Wind's concern. Still, "I think it would be simple enough to change it," he says, to exempt Wind and other unofficial Fourth Avenue vendors. "I'll talk to Walter (Tellez) about it."

Meanwhile, Councilman Ronstadt might be enjoying a touch of satisfaction over this matter of hidden meanings. Indeed, the ordinance has come back to bite the council, according to Ronstadt's chief of staff, Michael Guymon. "It's really the law of unintended consequences," Guymon says, adding that Ronstadt opposed the ordinance "for a variety of reasons, including that it would put hundreds of small businesses in Tucson out of business. Now, we're seeing the results of that."

Meanwhile, these new restrictions continue a long, uneasy dance between the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association--which runs the street fair--and fair vendors who operate outside the official, juried process. "There are people operating on private property all up and down the street, and there is a little bit of everything, even foot doctors in there," says John Sedwick, executive director of the association. "It cheapens the ambience of the fair."

But Steve Wind and the folks at Cabat Studio disagree. "This (ordinance) hurts a lot of people," Wind says. "And we're talking about a good chunk of change being lost."

Nor does the controversy necessarily end there. Vendors such as Wind wonder how the ordinance will play out at the huge Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Somewhere, somehow, Erni Cabat must be watching.

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