Bullies on the River Walk Playground 

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First they came for Santa, then they came for the caricature artists.

The enduring debate over whether roaming vendors are “appropriate” to River Walk ambience is fast becoming reminiscent of a playground squabble between the big kids who won’t let the weird kid play four square. Most of the vendors seem to have accepted the inevitability of some form of regulation on their trade, but suddenly the sale of blinking lights and red roses has become, according to some, a detriment to the safety of River Walk tourists and a full-on assault on all that is good and wholesome.

Despite rampant complaints from the Paseo del Rio Association, which would like to see the vendors booted off the space entirely, the City passed a downtown-vending ordinance allowing vendors and street artists to sell in designated locations, agreed upon by the Quality of Life Committee and the Downtown Operations group now in charge of the issue. Last week, Downtown Operations hosted two information sessions concerning the rigorous application process, and the outlook for vendors is not so good. If only half the number of people at each meeting actually apply, there would still be at least 15 people vying for the coveted six spots. The “winners” — those deemed at least worthy enough to be tucked away in the not-so-populated areas of the River Walk — will be drawn through a lottery system next Tuesday. There’s still one last obstacle for many of the vendors if the federal, state, or local background check doesn’t knock them out of the running: The $750 price tag for a year lease on the plot, effective December 22.

While vending has always been illegal on the River Walk, Downtown Operations Director Paula Stallcup said in the past it has been regarded as an issue similar to speeding. “Everyone does it, but no one really cares enough to do much about it.” Things really got nasty when the vendors slapped a lawsuit on the “big kids” after City Council authorized Paseo del Rio Association, a non-City-related group, to oversee the permit process for vending, but no permits were ever distributed. The vendors eventually won the lawsuit, but two years later, many still feel a little duped. Selling on private-restaurant property is another option, but only seven property owners are actually authorized to  participate because of space, and for many vendors, getting acceptance from restaurant owners has proven a more-than-daunting task.

Stallcup said that certainly the City would like to allow anyone who wants to do business to have access to the River Walk, but some sort of regulation is necessary. “I don’t think we can make everyone happy,” she said. “But at least we can make them a little less unhappy.”

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